Adjust to Challenging Conditions for Willamette Spring Chinook Success

By: Kyle Buschelman

So far the spring Chinook season has been a challenge. Meanwhile, making adjustments to baits and how we present them have helped me put a few fish in the boat. Those putting in the work and time can catch springers.

The Columbia River is closed. Therefore, most anglers will travel above Bonneville Dam to fish or move to the Willamette River. Last year I did a blog on the Willamette River and focused on trolling the Multnomah Channel and harbor fishery. This blog builds on that, but focuses on running baits in higher and dirtier water than we had last season.


For the remainder of the season we’ll be fishing the lower channel or harbor until flows subside enough to fish below the falls at Oregon City. We all know spring Chinook are difficult even when we have ideal conditions, so adding a few things can help. This season especially you may need to explore and reach outside your comfort zone.

I have been catching half of my fish on Chartreuse Fire Brine herring. They are simple to prepare and something we’ve been doing for many years. To recap I use one bottle of Chartreuse Fire Brine for two trays of herring. I also add Chartreuse Fire Dye so the color pops. In this water bright bait is imperative. I recommend letting trays of herring thaw slightly before adding brine. I think the bait takes the brine and dye better if you do this. I also add 1/2 cup of kosher or sea salt to the brine just before clients arrive. This toughens up the bait further and makes it more durable. I also use Blue Fire Brine/Fire Dye baits this time of year, but chartreuse has been the go-to so far. While some anglers only brine their bait six hours I’m a firm believer than the longer you brine them the better the bait is. Sometimes I’ll brine them for two days. They toughen up, the color is perfect and the scales shine.


My recipe for Natural Fire Brine herring is simple. I use one bottle for every two trays of herring. One trick I use with natural is to add two drops of Blue Fire Dye. It makes the herring shine bright. To toughen it up shortly before trolling I add a half-cup of salt before clients arrive. Scent is a big deal in the Northwest. On the other hand, I put more value is presentation. Sometimes I add anise, garlic or tuna to brines, but proper presentation holds more value.


There are many options for trolling baits. I prefer herring/anchovies. In the spring I focus on herring. Spinners and Super Baits work, but I have faith in good bait that isn’t overwhelmed in scents. Having good bait is part of the solution. You still need to fish the correct water and provide good attraction. I like using two flashers in dirty water, like we have now. And when I do this I setup different colors so it contrasts better. Generally, I run double flashers on the side rods and singles out back.

I’ve mentioned presentation a few times. Fish move different in high/dirty water. They use edges and run in water where we may not be accustomed to fishing. This can be difficult to adjust to and take us out of our comfort zone, but necessary to maintain success on tough years like this. A lot of times the areas are snaggier.


I like to focus on the harbor troll because on a year like this year where the water is high and muddy the fish are going to remain in the same areas as they do when the water is low and clear. Another thing is the depth you find salmon isn’t going to change even as the clarity and volume does. Therefore, it’s important to always focus on that 10-35 foot range. This means we are not trolling on bottom.

In this section it’s important to cover water. This is not holding water. The fish move. We are looking for traveling fish. And, make sure you adjust your flashers and baits until you find what they are keying in on that day. Offer different flashers and colored herring. I use three colors: natural, blue and chartreuse. Once I hook up I keep record and provide what’s doing best.


On the other hand, trolling the Lower Multnomah Channel is my favorite. The springers here are in a tighter area and the water is 12-35 feet deep, for the most part, which makes bottom fishing key. I use the same bait as in the harbor. Nevertheless, in the channel I grind the bottom and micro manage rods.

This bite is tide related. The top and bottom of tide usually yield the most bites. Being in right area is important and that’s what you need to figure out. I prefer a drunken troll. This is where I change directions and essentially troll a zigzag pattern downstream focusing on flats and pinch points.

I like to limit where fish can be, which means stick to areas where you know fish are going to be. The smaller the area you focus on the better chance you have to catch fish. I want to focus on areas where I can dissect the river and concentrate on a small section that we know is a traveling lane. If you do this it might account for one more fish or your only fish that day.


Editor’s Note: Kyle Buschelman operates Willamette Valley Outfitters. For more information on his Willamette Valley springer trips please visit