Hanford Reach Fall Upriver Bright Chinook Fishing
The fall Chinook salmon fishing in the last free flowing stretch of the Columbia River in the state of Washington gets underway about the last week or two of September for Upriver Brights that spawn in that area. This area is basically from the Priest Rapids dam all the way down to Richland, (63 miles of river) but most fishing occurs from the dam down to White Bluffs. Here I will break this area out as to the upper reach and the lower, the lower meaning downriver to the mouth of the Yakima River and below. These areas could be considered by some as being the homestead to the healthiest run of native Columbia River salmon still available to sport fisherpersons.
The area from about Pasco, upstream to Priest Rapids Dam, is the longest free flowing stretch on the upper Columbia. Salmon congregate in great numbers in this area and is one of the areas of their final destination, their natural spawning grounds.
Watch the dam fish count from the McNary Dam (at Umatilla OR.) , which is the dam downriver from this fishing location. When the TOTAL reaches 5000 Chinook, things will start being GOOD, at 7000 to 9000, you had better be there if you intend to fish this area. Allow about 5 days from the daily count to when the fish will move upriver into the lower area and 10 days for the upper area. Check the count number over Priest Rapids dam, usually there will be few, this means the numbers of fish will be between the 2 dams (this fishing area). The fish here will tend to vary in size from 15# to 40#.
You can usually count on good returns here near mid September clear into the last of October.
One question is often asked, if these fish are called Upriver Brights, then why are most of them a darker fish. The most commonly accepted theory is that the water temperature can vary from 65 to 72 degrees if there has been no rain for sometime during the summer months. With the water this warm as compared to the ocean temperatures 400 miles away of 56-58 degrees this time of the year, that this is what affects their coloration.
Most of these fish are still in a very good condition, just a darker skin color.
Main Targeted For the Upper Area : The most common area fished will normally be above and below the Vernita Bridge. There is usually a Vernita Village here where fishermen seem to congregate for a month or so each fall.
One of the most popular spots is a hole or slot in the river called the Hog Hole, which is just above the bridge which is a deep slot that runs a couple of hundred yards right down the middle of the river. Even in early September there will be fish holding here. Another is the King Hole, which is about 1 1/2 miles above the bridge. Above that will be the China Bar Drift, and the Midway Drift.
|The Priest Rapids dam shown on the left, with the fishing parking/launch above the Vernita Bridge being the 2 white/blue squares near each other downriver|
RV or Camping Upriver : The photo below shows the unimproved parking/camping area here. During the time of the year this area is targeted, a whole city of tents, cab-over campers and even small RVs, emerges on the flat land between the river bank and the sagebrush. This area above the Vernita bridge has port-a-potties that time of the year and plenty of flat area. A suggestion is to camp far from the road unless you'll be up early with everyone else.
On the south side of the bridge is a small state park/rest area.
|This photo shows the unimproved parking/launch area above the Vernita Bridge. The launch is at the small red/white/blue dot on the north side of the river.|
If you require a full hookup for RVing, then there is the Vantage Riverstone RV Park upriver a few miles at the west side of the river at the Vantage bridge area.
Launching & Boat Types : The farthest downstream ramp in this section of the river is a good launch at the old ferry site near the old town of White Bluffs.
Launching and reloading is possible if you use the unimproved launching area of gravel bar on the north side of the river about 1/2 mile above the Vernita Bridge. Here launching will be on river gravel bar type launches where a 4 wheel drive vehicle is HIGHLY recommended. In low water, you may be backing up to your muffler and shoving the boat to get it off the trailer. These area will very often have boulders on them that you will have to navigate around.
Both of these can be fished with prop boats IF
you are careful.
The photo below shows the information posted at the entrance to the boat launch / camping area. You will note that a Discovery Pass is required here, so I suspect it is state owned property.
|Looking downriver toward the Vernita bridge from the unimproved boat launch after everyone has left for the season|
Again a prop boat can be used in most of the river, it may not be ideal, but if you stay in the middle or not real close to the bank, you can navigate. You however will probably need hip boots to load your prop boat back on the trailer, or power load it.
As far as boats used here, REMEMBER this is still the MIGHTY Columbia River, therefore not the ideal location to use a 12' aluminum lake fishing boat. Most boats you will see here are 18' plus, and have motors with lots of power. DO NOT GET COMPLACENT HERE, this is not the Saturday afternoon on a small lake.
Fisherpersons are reminded with possible increased water outflow from the upstream dam, to be ever watchful because of changing depths because when they start dumping water thru the humongous turbines at the dam, the river can come up incredibly fast, so do not park your vehicle close to the waters edge. Below the dam the river heights can raise 5' PLUS when this happens. And when they dump a lot of water it also really effects the bite (not good by the way).
We will break this area into 2 sections, the section below the Vernita bridge and the area above the bridge as another.
One cheat sheet is using the Priest Rapids Dam USGS gauge, CLICK HERE which will help put fish in your box. When flows go up, the fish move upstream, In contrast, when the flow goes down, the fish will hold and stack up, in holding water. You will need to recognize the differences of this water. Therefore on the normally higher flows, concentrate at the upper end of a run at a choke point or bottleneck. As the flow lessens slide to the bottom end and fish the deeper holes in a more stagnate water.
The water flow can be raised once or twice a day and usually lowest early morning. This difference will usually be 6', but can occasionally be 10'. So be careful where you park your vehicle or if you pull your boat up on a gravel bank to run back to your vehicle/ camp for a forgotten item, or to eat lunch.
When looking for your own water, look the river over up/down and try to decide where the easiest path for the fish will be, (even if it is only 5 feet deep) then fish that.
By the time these fish reach this
stretch of the river, a number of them will be non-biters, which eliminates
some possible encounters.
Type of Fishing : Fishing here will normally be back trolling which is the simplest and safest method here. This is basically positioning your boat in a trolling position heading upriver, but trolling slow enough where you are drifting down river at about a slow walking speed, using a dropper weight or a Jet-Diver. Using the Jet-Diver gives you the advantage of being able to keep the bait very near the bottom even in some of the faster slots without hanging up (IF YOU ARE VERY AWARE OF WHAT'S GOING ON). Others simply use a 4 to 10 oz. cannonball sinker on a dropper and back-troll. This can be using either eggs or Kwikfish depending on conditions and locations.
There are a lot of guys that troll downhill with Brads Super Baits or the Super Cut-Plug Baits. The original Super Baits are skinnier and seem to spin faster than the Cut Plug Baits. But it seems what ever the fisherperson has more faith in.
These guys here have a different theory, in that if you sit at anchor or back troll, you are essentially waiting for the fish to come to you. But if you downhill troll, you are covering a lot more water, (possibly a mile at a pass) which exposes your lure to a lot more fish for the same amount of time on the water. When downhill trolling, you need to go faster (even from 4 to 5MPH), mainly to be able to control the boat in the current. Here your speed should be determined by the attractor (Pro Troll dodger), which in turn controls your lure. Watch your rod tip, it should be throbbing to a rhythm of One One-thousand, Two - One-thousand, so adjust your speed to match, either slower or faster.
When using the Pro Troll type dodger, one guide confided that he uses a chrome/red, or chrome/chartreuse in the mornings, then after noonish, goes strictly to chartreuse. These dodgers may have a agitator (kicker) fin on the rear, one brand has a single fin, which produces a slower roll, while the brand that has dual fins, produce a faster roll.
Watch the other boats that are being bit. But one good thing in doing this downhill troll, your exposure to the fish is a lot shorter period of time, so, here they usually bite not because they are hungry, but out of annoyance so they have less time to inspect your lure, then strike out of instinct and protecting their territory.
A rule of thumb here is in the faster moving water use the jet diver with a Spi-N-Glow and a LARGE gob of eggs, and backtroll. In calmer water downhill troll with 10 oz. cannonball, Pro Troll dodger and a Brads super plug or the Super Cut Plugs, packed with oil pack tuna. When using the dodger your line can be out 90 to 120' depending on water depth, your speed should govern the rod tip throb, One One-thousand, Two - One-thousand rhythm.
This type of fishing, there is no need to do a swooping hook-set, if you insist, just a flip of the wrist is enough.
And if things turn out slow, you may as a trolling fishermen change over to spinner fishing in this area also, as sometimes something different my be the thing that gets your fish-box smelly.
Here most of the fish will be hugging the bottom because of the swifter current, however to not pass up suspended fish in less current or transition water, so using your sonar will be a must.
You will run upriver of where you intend on fishing, getting in position and back trolling down river. The water depth will normally be 18'-25' along the edges, (other than the launching beaches) with maybe 35'-40' in the center. Most fish will be picked up in the bottom 5' in the shallower water and 10' off the bottom the deeper sections. In the deeper, slower water they seem to suspend more often. If you drag the bottom you run the chance of picking up an oversize sturgeon.
Some fishermen even prefer to run downriggers, using 8# balls with herring on for bait, so to each his own, if it works.
There are a few that anchor up, (but if you do, be very careful when the dam releases lots of water) however the majority of fishermen will be on the move. Like many fisheries though, it isn't well received to drop anchor in the middle of one of the uphill or downhill or back trolling/bouncing groups. So when trying to do something different than others, take their style of fishing into consideration, not infringing on them by just anchor up on the outskirts or find some open water. There are plenty of fish everywhere and can be caught in 3 ft of water out to 55 ft of water.
Later in the run timing when the jacks (immature males) start showing, a good method is to back-bounce egg roe. It seems that the jacks really hit eggs and there are days that the adults will want them also.
The word here is to fish, "Deep, Slow, and Early". Early means just that, as most of the fishing here will be a sunny day so by 10 AM probably 80 % of the fish will be caught for that day unless it is a overcast day.
At times, there can be a lot of weeds floating in the water. This is usually caused by a high rise in the river flow out of the dam, that has flushed weeds loose out of some of the side sloughs.
Bait : Over the years, the most common lure would be Kwikfish with a sardine wrap in a chrome/chartreuse color. The sardine is used as it is the oiliest of the baits, which sets up a scent decent trail. This added weight also slows the action of the lure down somewhat. Each time you wrap a new sardine onto the lure, you should check the action in the water, and may have to adjust the eye to allow the lure to follow true. You might also try to wrap your plug with salmon roe. Go ahead and be a rebel, but sometimes something different my be just the ticket.
Other bait as cut-plug herring, egg roe, large spinners, large Spi-N-Glos, spoons, diving plugs, big FlatFish can all be used effectively here. Or recently Brad's Super Cut Plugs stuffed with tuna or sardine parts seem to be a winner. Also not discount adding a large Spi-N-Glo in combination to a herring. Try different lure/methods on your partners rods, and pick the ones that get bites. At times when one lure/bait won't pull fish, the other bait may work.
Brad's Super Cut Plugs have become a very predominate choice lure in this area since it's inception, and you can run them behind a Fish Flash or a Pro-Troll flasher. Bradís Super Baits have a hinged hallow cavity in the rear section, held together by a special rubber band. They come in two salmons sizes a Super Cut Plug (3 1/2") and the Mini Super Cut Plug (3"). The smaller ones may be more effective early in the season. The most popular method here is to pack the cavity with canned tuna fish in oil. Drain out the oil from your tuna fish just like how mom used to do for your tuna sandwich. To add to your arsenal, try brining the tuna with red Fire Cure salmon bait cure. Do not overpack or you will break the lure at the hinge pin. You can also add other scent to this tuna, if things slow down. Experiment.
Run a heavier leader, like 40# mono. Longer leaders to the lure produce less action from the dodger.
Shown in the photo below is my way of rigging the Brad's Super Cut Plugs. The beads are there for the purpose of placing the front hook's eye directly behind the lures tail. The red color of both the beads and hooks try to simulate a injured bait and blood leaking out. This setup is the same as I use for ocean or estuary (B10) fishing. If I do not have canned tuna, then fill the cavity with a gel scent. Hooks are size 4/0 and 5/0, with the larger on the rear. Leaders are my arm reach form one hand to the opposite shoulder (42-44"). This is set up for trolling with the hang back hooks, if it was to be used for more of a mooching type, then the hooks would need to be closer to the lure.
Brad's Super Cut Plug shown with the hinged section open with modified trailing hooks
These fish seem to hit a lure not in that they are hungry as in feeding in the ocean, but as a river situation in that they seem to strike in defense of their territory. With this being the case, placing the lure in front of them at the right depth is critical.
Off Limits Near the Dam : Below the Priest Rapids dam on the West shore is a hatchery, there are boundaries that you are not allowed to fish inside of. Also you are supposed to stay away from the base of the dam by 600'. This is for your protection if they open the gates.
You may think you are getting away by sneaking in close and not being caught, but the WDFW does sit up on the bluffs with a spotting scope, will read boat numbers, then the next week send you a citation in the mail.
Below the Bridge : There is also fishing below the Vernita bridge. About 3 1/2 miles below the bridge is the B/C hole. Another 4 miles downriver you will encounter the first Hanford Reactor. The #1 Reactor is the one most upriver, with the #2 next downriver.
Downriver another couple of miles below #2 you will encounter a couple of shallow gravel bars that a prop boat can navigate IF you are very careful. The lower one has a deep slot only about 25' wide.
Then downriver around the bend and past Locke Island there is White Bluffs hole with a concrete launch from the east side at the site of the old ferry landing. There is a big hole right off this launch that can well be productive in September.
Fishing can be productive in a goodly section of this lower area since it is the most downstream section and you won't have a lot of company as the prop boats won't usually be there.
Fishermen Help Hatchery Egg Take : In this fishery, CCA Washington in 2015 and 2016 has come up with a Brood-stocking salmon derby, where all contestants have large enough aerated containers aboard and WDFW assists in taking these caught fish to the hatchery for Brood-stocking. The mortality results were amazing, with these fish's survival at egg take time being higher than where the fish naturally entered the hatchery. The thought here is the fish were taken earlier than when they matured naturally and entered the hatchery, thereby shortcutting the length of time in the river, and into protected water of the hatchery.
|Here a combo spinner, cheater & eggs did the trick on one of the early brighter fish taken here.|
Main Targeted For the Lower Area : This lower area, as said above, most of the fishing will be near the mouth of the Yakima River between the towns of Richland and Pasco Washington and down to the mouth of the Snake River. Some fishing will be upriver a few miles, but, most fishermen are happy to stay close to the launches.
There is a nice boat launch and parking area just north of Highway 182 in Richland, just before you cross the bridge going east into Pasco. There are another 1/2 a dozen boat launches downriver on both sides of the river to the mouth of the Snake River. This area is known as the Tri-Cities area, comprised of the cities of Richland, Pasco and Kennewick, and will be the area most fishermen use when this lower area. This is not to preclude you finding other waters that can also be productive.
Here the water is flowing to a lesser degree than the upriver fishery and far enough above McNary Dam as a transition area, and more of a lazy river like fishery, thereby more conducive to smaller boats, and therefore is a bit more laid back than the upper fishery where faster water, gravel bars and channels need to be watched closely.
Type of Fishing : Some fishermen who fish lower this lower river system, do not have to worry nearly as much about the water level fluctuating from the upper dam flows, however there may still be floating/suspended Milfoil weeds broken loose from the upriver dam high flow release, which can be a problem at certain times. If this is the case you need to use Golf Tees above the terminal mainline gear and weed guards above the flasher, maybe even between the flasher and lure. Also 6 bead chain swivels seem to work better than ball-bearing swivels simply because of the more bearings available to get contaminated, which gives you a bit more fishing time between pulling in to clear weeds. Also you can run a rod directly off the stern, whereby the boat itself deflects some of the weeds. If it gets really bad, some fishermen may run a downrigger ball to simply collect these weeds.
Bait : Here in the last few years this fishery has developed it's own technique, that being a Pro Troll E-Chip flasher ahead of a Brad's Super Cut Plug lure. The couple preferred Brad's lures seem to be the Hot Tamale and the Watermelon colors. A 12" sliding dropper to a 8 to 12 oz. cannonball sinker. Some fishermen also use a Fish Flash instead of the Pro Troll, just to give the fish a choice. You may also, but seldom see a downrigger used. These Brad's Super Cut Plugs will usually be filled with oil packed canned Tuna.
Downhill trolling seems to be more effective here, but if you get no action, then give the the fish to choice by trying uphill trolling.
|Here we see the Columbia River with the Yakima River coming in from the left, & the Snake River from the right|
RV or Camping Downriver : In Pasco at the confluence of the Columbia and Snake Rivers is Sacajawea State Park. Others may be found HERE or at KOA.
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Originated 09-23-00, Last Updated
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