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Winston Falls of Vancouver is an elite Columbia River salmon angler.
He makes an estimated 140 trips a year. Others in the fraternity of serious Columbia River regulars know he walks the talk about catching chinook and coho.
Often, there’s a newcomer to fishing, or a struggling angler, who Falls is mentoring in his 16-foot North River boat. He freely shares what he’s learned during 50 years on the Columbia.
At the end of the day, his student generally offers to reimburse Falls for bait and fuel.
He won’t take a dime — ever.
“God gave me the ability to catch fish,” Falls said. “If I were ever to take money for it, he might take it away. … I love taking people fishing and watching them catch fish. I absolutely love it when I watch someone catch their first salmon.”
Falls is 76. He graduated from Hudson’s Bay High School and earned a degree in business from the Oregon Institute of Technology.
He was an inventory and materials manager, then a developmental engineer, for Daimler-Benz of North America in Portland until retiring in 2002.
Since retirement, if there are salmon in the Columbia, Falls is fishing for them, probably three or four days per week.
“Everybody ought to try to be good at something,” he said. “I’m trying to be good at fishing.”
Normally, he starts his year trolling for spring chinook off Caterpillar Island downstream of Vancouver in February and fishes steadily somewhere until the end of October for fall chinook and coho.
His spring chinook season includes trolling with plug cut herring at Caterpillar Island, then moving into the Multnomah Channel of the Willamette River once the Columbia closes. He fishes the channel through May.
Once summer chinook season opens in June, Falls mostly anchors in the Woodland stretch of the lower Columbia, fishing with sardine-wrapped Kwikfish.
Early August is Buoy 10 time with a neighbor at Astoria for fall chinook, then after a couple of weeks in the estuary, he switches to fishing with wobblers for fall chinook near the mouth of the Cowlitz River.
In September and October, Falls mostly fishes close to home, launching at Langsdorf Landing boat ramp at Caterpillar Island and trolling with Pro-Trolls and Brad’s Super Baits or spinners for fall chinook and coho.
What’s his favorite fishery?
That’s easy. It’s spring chinook.
“Usually, the Columbia is 34 to 36 degrees — that’s cold,” Falls said. “You’re fishing with temperatures in the 30s, rain, and miserable. So when you catch one, you feel like you’ve really earned it.”
His favorite spring spot?
“The Multnomah Channel is smaller. The fish are necked down into a smaller area and I think I know it better, the areas the fish are generally in. It’s kind of like fishing in a barrel.”
Changes in fishing tackle and the addition of electronics to angling all make catching salmon easier than 50 years ago, he said.
Falls said Spin-N-Glos, flashers and, most recently, Pro-Trolls have each improved the effectiveness of fishermen in his time.
“Spin-N-Glos came out decades ago and were huge,” he said. “We went from catching a few to catching a lot of fish. The guides started using Fish Flashes, running herring behind them, and that worked.”
Pro-Troll flashers are the latest craze. Anglers have had great success fishing a Brad’s Super Bait behind Pro-Trolls, but small spinners also work well, he said.
“Watch that Pro-Troll rotate before you drop it down,” Falls said. “It’s elliptical, not circular. When it drops, whatever you are pulling darts and jumps all around. I think that crazy action must be like a really injured bait. The salmon just go bonkers for it.”
Boat electronics help, too.
“With fish finders you can really know what the bottom is like,” he said. “GPS has helped. You can know your true speed and now we can measure it very accurately.”
Falls said he is optimistic about the future of Columbia River salmon runs.
“It’s not so much what the departments (of Fish and Wildlife) are doing, it’s the amount of fish the tribes are putting in the river for everybody — them and us,” he said.
He’s not a fan of using barbless hooks.
“I don’t see that there is any empirical evidence that it increases the survival of wild fish released,” Falls said. “At the same time, we’re told we need to harvest as many hatchery fish as we can so they don’t spawn with the natives. With barbless hooks, we lose more fish.”
To be a better salmon fisherman, pay attention to detail and copy successful anglers, he said.
“Watch the guys who are really good and emulate them,” Falls said. “This is not rocket science. We copy the guy who’s got it right.”
It’s now late February, and Falls is ready to start fishing again. In the past three years, his first spring chinook were caught between Feb. 25 and 28.
And, more than likely, there will be someone getting mentored in the other seat of his boat.
“If you believe you’ve been given a gift, you need to share it,” he said.