Columbia River Salmon Fishing
By Anne Erickson
My pole arched toward the river and the line whirred out. I jolted to attention and grabbed the reel. “Wait!” Said my guide. I froze because I did not want to lose that fish. Not at all. “Okay, reel now,” he said. I started cranking.
When I got to the boat ramp at 5:30 am I could tell this was serious business - pickup trucks towing boats lined up at the launch and men in waders bustled about doing Fishing Preparation Things. I ignored my imposter syndrome, pulled on my boots and found the Upper Columbia Guide Service boat at the ramp. Owner and guide Shane Magnuson had a big smile and a black lab on board and immediately put me at ease. Our aluminum boat joined the dozens of craft motoring out under the bridge where the Wind River joins the Columbia. Spring Chinook salmon - ‘springers’ - come home to the Columbia and its tributary rivers every year, and fishers follow; during the Spring run and another in the Fall, the place buzzes with trailered boats, RVs camped out in friends’ driveways and lucky limiters toting ziplock bags fat with fresh salmon. The Columbia River provides.
And the bounty isn’t limited to fish. The Columbia River is an undeniable presence during any adventure in Skamania County. The roads that get you here wind along the river, revealing basalt buttresses, miles-long views and so much scenery congress made it official, designating this part of the Columbia River Gorge a National Scenic Area. My slightly more than twenty-four hours in the area was filled with wonder, and it all connected back to the Columbia.
My room at Wilder & Pine Riverside Cabins was one quarter of a large log cabin - cozy, with a fireplace and a kitchenette. And they weren’t exaggerating putting ‘Riverside’ in the name. This hotel in the town of Stevenson is right on the river. The tile hot tub on the deck of my quarter cabin was heaven after the three-and-a-half-hour drive from Seattle; a hot soak under a starry sky with tree frogs chirping sent me off to a solid sleep.
The next morning, I was grateful for the coffee stocked at the cabin as did the 10-minute drive in early morning darkness to the Wind River boat launch for my fishing adventure. With Jewels the black lab standing at the bow, we headed out, passing wooden fishing stands built by the Columbia Plateau Tribes that have harvested salmon from this river for generations. I settled in to wait and get wet - salt water salmon fishing had prepared me to expect that. So, I was gobsmacked when a Chinook hit my line after just 20 minutes in the boat. I followed Shane’s instructions meticulously - I wanted to be the cool middle-aged-fisherwoman. With his expert coaching I landed a gorgeous Chinook. He thanked the fish before he clubbed it and the river must have liked that, because the other fisherman on the boat immediately got a salmon.
Since we clients could no longer fish (the limit’s one) and we hadn’t even been out for an hour, Shane decided to put his line down - a rare treat for a guide - and almost immediately caught the boat’s third springer. “Don’t make people think it’s always this easy,” said Shane as he filleted the bounty. He added that Columbia River spring Chinook are good eating - they have a high fat content and some even say they taste better than the much-hyped Copper River salmon. He gave me my catch in a big ziplock (it was HEAVY!) and I gave him a tip, and then sauntered back to my Subaru parked amidst the pickups and trailers. I made absolutely sure everyone could see my bag of fish flesh.
Exploring the Columbia River Gorge
There was plenty of day left, so I stashed my salmon in the cabin’s fridge and headed to Beacon Rock State Park for a hike. This 848-foot monument is a volcano core exposed by the erosion of the relentless Columbia. The personal story here is as wild as the geological one. In 1915 Henry Biddle bought the rock because he wanted to build a trail to the summit. The trail Biddle built is still the only way up, a steep switchback punctuated by ornate antique railings. I said a silent thanks to Henry Biddle as I took in the river view he gave us all with his trail to the top of the rock.
On my way back to Stevenson I stopped at the Bonneville Dam. I had caught a salmon, now I wanted to see its fellow fish working their way up the river. The dam counts the fish that come through and checking that report is an excellent way to predict how the fishing will be upriver. The day before the dam had counted 6500 Chinook salmon passing through, a huge number that was the math behind our luck. I sat and watched 5 salmon in one window, all steadily pushing against the rivers flow, working hard to get upstream to their spawning grounds on a journey as ancient as this river.
After this long day, I was more than ready for a beer and dinner at Walking Man Brewing. This OG craft brewery opened in 1999, just added an outdoor beer garden and has a great vibe. I had a pint of their flagship Walking Man IPA, which won gold at the World Beer Cup and tastes like the pines that surround this place. Their fare is solid and creative; I tried the ‘Can’t Bahn-Mi Love’ which brings all the goodness of that classic Vietnamese sandwich to a burger. Then I walked back to my cabin (Stevenson is compact and very walkable) to savor sunset on the river.
I really didn’t want to leave - there’s enough hiking, exploring and ways to be on the water here that you could spend a week or two and not get bored. But I journeyed home the next day via the Washington side and took in a final view of the Gorge at the Cape Horn Lookout along WA-14. With my cooler full of fish in the backseat, I sent up a thanks to the Columbia River, and her rolling waters that continue to sustain us with bounty and enrich us with beauty.