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By Jason Brooks
With May upon us and summer just around, the corner spring chinook anglers will be looking towards the main tributaries of the Columbia River for some last-minute chrome fish. The Columbia is a feeder river that is more of a freeway for the fish than a spawning ground. Chinook that have been out in the ocean for the past three to five years have been returning to the Columbia since early February, but the main portion of the run is late April.
That means when May rolls around the fish are getting closer to their exit off the highway to the natal rivers of their origin – the tributaries that feed into the mighty Columbia River. Above Bonneville Dam is where you will find most May spring chinook anglers with Wind River and Drano Lake being the two primary tributary fisheries along the Columbia River.
The Wind River is expecting 4,400 fish back, which is 200 more than what was predicted last year when it had an actual return of 6,530. The Wind is an interesting place as the main fishing is done out in the Columbia where the Wind River dumps into the big water. Sand flats form here so be ready to make adjustments as each spring brings trees, debris and sandbars that wash into the river from runoff.
Boat anglers do their best along the deadline and down into the far western corner trolling plugs or Mack’s Lure’s ScentFlash UV Paddle Flasher with the Wedding Ring Salmon Tech 3.5 spinners. Be sure to stuff the ScentFlash UV Paddle Flasher with canned tuna soaked in Pro-Cure water-soluble Shrimp Oil or Mack’s Lure UV Bait Scent ScentFlash Oil in Bloody Tuna. Using a dropper weight keeps the gear tight to the boat, which is needed to avoid tangles with other anglers as well as keeping your gear close to the bottom where the fish will be resting.
Drano Lake is a staple for the spring chinook angler. This year, there’s a predicted return of 8,000 fish, which is more than last year's prediction of 3,800, but yielded an actual return of 11,491. The years of dragging a Wiggle Wart are all but over for those that fish the “toilet bowl,” which is the deep water near the Highway 14 bridge. This bridge is the deadline and there are signs letting you know that you are about to cross over and get a citation. This is because fish destined for further up-river will drop into the current break and rest for a bit before continuing their journey. Native American fishing platforms take up a bunch of the once famed beach property where bank anglers would pitch plugs and spinners, so this is pretty much a boat-only fishery now. The parking area and ramp was redone several years ago but it still is not big enough when the fishery is hot. Get there early and be prepared to take a long time to get the boat launched.
Most that fish in the tight corner of Drano Lake prefer to use prawn spinners. Back in the days when we first started using this technique the top producer was Eric’s Prawn Spinner, but now there are several on the market. Mack’s Lure makes a Wedding Ring Prawn Rig that uses the famed “Smile Blade,” which is made of mylar and spins when trolling at slow speeds. Additionally, the Smile Blade Shrimp Rig tipped with a cured coonstripe shrimp on the top hook is a top producer. Popular colors at Drano Lake are Chartreuse Mirror Silver Tiger/Fire Tiger and the Red Silver Tiger/Red combos. Utilizing a Smile Blade is beneficial at Drano when you might come to near standstill due to the number of boats in the “toilet bowl” area. Metal-bladed rigs tend to sink as well as not rotate at the slow speeds like the Smile Blade does. The lake portion of Drano does produce its own fair number of fish and here the standard trolling set-up with the Scentflash UV Triangle Flasher or the Scentflash UV Paddle Flasher with Mack’s UV Bait Scents ScentFlash Oil in Salmon Slammer, trailing the Wedding Ring Salmon Tech 3.5 spinner works well.
When the Clearwater and Snake River systems have enough fish for an opener like this spring, you can head to the confluence of these rivers at Lewiston, Idaho. It’s here that you can fish for spring chinook that are destined for places such as Orofino, Idaho for Clearwater River-bound fish and Riggins, Idaho for Rapid River-destined fish, as well as those heading up the Snake River. It is a big melting pot of spring chinook. Even though these fish are long ways from the Pacific Ocean they are still extremely bright, with silver sides and deep red flesh full of oils.
If Washington’s rivers get enough fish for openers upstream look for the Icicle River in the town of Leavenworth, Washington. It had a fishery in recent years and was decent. This fishery is short, with about 3 miles of river that is fishable, but most of the banks are privately owned. There are a few spots for bank access, but most of the anglers launch early and sit on anchor in the few deep holes. Floating eggs tipped with a piece of herring is a good bet on this river. If you get a chance to either plunk or back-bounce, then a Cha Cha Pill Float behind a large Smile Blade trailing a 3/0 hook tipped with some herring and cured eggs is an effective way to catch these fish, but do not forget to take a jar of homemade tuna balls as well.
Keep an eye on the dam counts and announcements by both the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife and the Idaho Fish and Game Department for seasons in tributaries further upriver. This past winter Idaho Department of Fish and Game estimated 38,631 spring chinook were expected to arrive in Idaho. The season was announced in a press release in March with an opening on April 23, 2023. The daily limit depends on which fishery you target, so be sure to check the regulations.
May is time to fish tributary spring chinook. Pack the truck and hook up the boat – it is your last chance at spring chinook.