By Mike Carey
My reel was peeling line at a dizzying rate and it felt like I had a freight train attached on the other end. Without thinking I applied my thumb to the level line spool and pulled back with a loud “ouch!” “That’ll leave a mark” our guide Dave deadpanned. The fish was a good fifty yards behind our boat before I was able to slowly start to regain line. Foot by foot the strong chinook and I battled back and forth, each of us gaining, and then losing line to the other.
Closer and closer the powerful fish came, each run a little less intense. Now a giant tail could be seen, trailing a large V wake behind it. Finally, the fish, exhausted came to the side of the boat and I saw the reassuring sign of fatigue as the fish laid on its side, telling us we were getting closer to that critical moment. Net sliding under the fish Dave skillfully scooped him up and into our boat. But not before the big fish gave one final flip of his tail, giving all of us an early morning soaking. Wow! This upriver fall bright was twenty plus pounds of pure power and beauty, not to mention great eating. The smiles and high fives of my friends were the icing on the cake and the day was just beginning!
A perfect morning, the sun just breaking over the shoreline and catching a hot Hanford Reach fall chinook - it’s the stuff dreams are made of, and it was living up to be everything I had heard about the Reach.
Washington’s Hanford Reach is synonymous with some of the state’s best fall chinook fishing to be found – and not coincidentally, the last of the chinook fishing to be found for the season. It’s the icing on the cake, and what icing it is! The Reach is the perfect setting and the perfect fish to end the year’s salmon fishing on the Columbia River. These are the brutes that dreams are made of. A fish worth dreaming about during the long off season and savoring the brief weeks they are available to catch. Battle plans must be made, so let’s talk about what you need to know to get into this fishery and have a chance at one of these amazing fish.
They call “The Reach” the last free-flowing stretch of the Columbia. With dams seemingly from one end of the Columbia to the other, this stretch of water has no dams to impede it. Here, from Priest Rapids dam down to Richland anglers have 63 miles of productive water to fish. Ideal spawning grounds make this a natural holding location for big chinook to do their reproducing thing. For the boat angler, you’ll find a variety of deep holes, shallow runs, and everything in between. A prop boat can be used – with extreme caution, however, downriver in the area known as Coyote Rapids a jet is the way to go.
The most popular location anglers congregate is Vernita Bridge. There is a large open area to the north of the bridge on the east side of the river. Every year a small town of anglers set up their base camp here. All variety of tents, RVs, and sleeping in the back of trucks can be seen. At night the cries of the coyotes remind you that this is wild country. Camping is free, but a Discovery pass is required. The launch here is rough and rocky and four-wheel drive is a must. Plan on your boat getting scraped up on the rocky shoreline and be sure to bring waders to help during the launch and retrieval process. Launching, by the way, starts at o-dark hundred. Alarm clocks are optional – unless you’re a deep sleeper, you will be awakened by the lights and sounds of anglers starting to launch around 3am.
Just upstream from the rough launch at Vernita you’ll run into the first hole, the Hog Hole. This spot will hold fish early and throughout the season. It’s in the middle of the river and runs a couple hundred yards in length and has a depth of 15-40 feet. Fish will be both suspended and hugging the bottom here. The hole is deep enough to require a way to get your gear down to the fish. This can include divers, dropper weights, and, yes, downriggers. A word of caution – the Columbia is a big, strong, and powerful river. Snagging a downrigger ball on the bottom of the Columbia has the potential for some seriously bad consequences and requires the boat captain and crew to be ready to deal with them. The times I’ve used downriggers I always have a wire cutter at the ready and a good dose of “always pay attention” to go along with it. It goes without saying if another boat hooks up to be ready to pull those riggers up. Backtrolling this hole works well and as you push the fish ever shallower by ready for that take down.
A variety of salmon catching gear can be used for Hanford chinook depending on the depth and speed of the spot you are fishing. Among the most popular setups are flashers with super baits (packed with tuna), plugs, flatfish (wrapped with a sardine or herring strip), and the ever-effective spin-n-glo with eggs, or eggs and shrimp. Anglers that are flexible and willing to adapt techniques to river flow and time of day will be most successful. Backtrolling your gear down the hole can be very effective, pushing fish back down the hole and triggering them to bite out of aggression is a tried-and-true technique.
Farther upriver as you head to toward the dam, you’ll find the King Hole about a mile and a half above the bridge, then the China Bar and Midway Drifts. One of my personal favorite spots is the deep hole just down from the dam. As well as being great holding water, it’s a stunningly beautiful spot. The deep hole off the rocks is great for downrigger fishing. You may even want to try running a diver twenty feet behind your release and bringing the ball up ten feet off the bottom, letting the diver do the work of bring your bait down to the bottom. Be sure to pay attention to the regulations and know the areas that are closed, downriver from the dam and on the west shoreline where the hatchery is located.
Below the Vernita Bridge you will find several more popular spots, including those famous old reactors. It’s about a three-mile run down to the B/C hole, and another four miles to reactor number one, and then number two. Beyond a large bend you’ll find the famous White Bluffs with a nice sixty-foot-deep hole. There’s a concrete launch located here, however; this is the area where running a prop boat becomes a dicey proposition. Be mindful that water levels can go up and down five to six feet in a day, leaving riffles where clear passage had been. It would be best to learn this water by first going with a guide before venturing out on your own.
Finally, farther downstream around the areas of the mouth of the Yakima down to the mouth of the Snake you’ll find slower water, more suited for prop boats. With several launches located around Richland, Pasco, and Kennewick, smaller boats will have a safer time of it than at the fast-flowing upper Reach spots.
As to timing, these up-river brights can be targeted from mid-September well into late October. Don’t be fooled by the dark coloring on these fish – they cut just fine and taste great!
The Reach is truly an amazing place to fish with the very real opportunity of hooking into large chinook. Multi-fish days are not unusual. As a bonus, while fishing you’ll be treated to amazing scenery. Besides moth-balled nuclear reactors, it’s very possible to see coyote, mule deer, several varieties of waterfowl, and even herds of elk on the shoreline. Some of the best weather in the Pacific Northwest can be had with temperatures moderating from the scorching hot summer days. You’ll find cool nights and a sky full of stars to gaze at as the coyotes sing you to sleep. And most likely you’ll be rewarded with some tasty chinook to take home.