By Brad Wagner | 07/25/2014
It’s been an exciting July here in Central Washington. We’ve seen more than 600,000 sockeye salmon cross Bonneville Dam, the first of seven dams these fish swim past on their way up to Lake Osoyoos in Canada. There’s so many sockeye in the Upper Columbia River right now that it’s been a chore for me to sit down and write this.
I’ve been spending my time unhooking sockeye, pouring Pautzke Fire Brine onto more coon shrimp and keeping my Wooldridge sled gassed up and for another day of targeting sockeye and king salmon on the Upper Columbia. Fishing has been good. Excitement is at an all time high and showing no signs of slowing.
These salmon have bolted out of the Pacific Ocean and up the Columbia River. Meanwhile, a surprise is waiting for them at the mouth of the slow, meandering Okanogan River where air temperatures greater than 100 degrees are warming water considerably. When water in the Okanogan climbs to 70 degrees a virtual aquatic roadblock forms. These fish stack up in the “pool”, as it’s called.
The warm water creates a thermo- barrier for the fish. The lack of oxygen forbids further upriver passage. I love it. We have more than a half-million sockeye and roughly 75,000 kings stuck in my backyard. This bottleneck creates one of the best sockeye fisheries in the entire world! Anglers from across the globe flock to the tiny town of Brewster to sample arguably the best sockeye fishing on the planet. And the king salmon fishing is pretty good too!
There’s so many fish that recently the limit was raised to six sockeye, per angler, per day. These fish range from three to six pounds. Keep in mind, you can also keep two hatchery kings, some of which top 30 pounds. Ironically, some think these fish are starting to turn after their long journey, but that’s not true. The fish are bright and the fillets are a vibrant red.
We target these sockeye mostly trolling with downriggers, but divers and dropper weights work also. I use light action Fetha Styx 803 downrigger rods. They are perfect action for the sockeye and durable enough to handle the kings we catch on sockeye gear. My go-to setup is a small orange or pink hoochie rig with tandem barbless 1/0 red hooks fished with a small bead above them and a Mack’s Lures Smile Blade from Macs lures. I set the hoochie rigs about 14 inches behind a small 6 or 8-inch dodger.
Once my rig is tied up and ready to fish, I’ll grab a piece red or orange Pautzke Fire Brined shrimp and usually put it on the trailer hook. I run this set up 20-30 feet behind my downrigger ball at varying depths. Shallow (as high as six feet) is best early in the season whereas I’ll go deeper (down to 50 feet) later in the season.
If you’re not finding fish adjust your length between your dodger and hoochie rig. I run it as close as eight inches and as far back as 16 inches. The fish are around. In fact, you will see them flopping all over the surface. Varying depths and experimenting with different colors of and properly cured shrimp will generate success.
Fishing has been very good lately. We’ve been limiting out on sockeye early in the day and then targeting kings. King fishing is less consistent, but can’t still be good. To chase kings we put away the lighter rods and switch to larger Fetha Styx dr 1065 rods.
Rather than shrimp, I’ll use herring, brined in green or chartreuse Fire Brine. Meanwhile, I’ll always have blue Fire Brined herring with me, too. We also run various colors of Brads Super Baits with tuna fish stuffed in them. I run Fire Brined herring behind an inline spin flasher with about 48″of 30-pound leader or behind a regular flasher with 48-60 inches of leader, depending on the action I’m looking for. The kings fishing is not a guarantee, but can put the icing on a nice sockeye filled cake!
Editor’s Note: Only barbless lures are permitted on the Upper Columbia River.
Brad Wagner operates Bobber Down Guide Service. For more info on his Upper Columbia River sockeye and king salmon combo trips please visit