Columbia Gorge a walleye bonanza this year

By Al Thomas, Columbian Outdoors Reporter

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This spring chinook season in Southwest Washington was so flaky — with the high streamflows by mid-March and low Bonneville Dam counts — that I only made one trip for the premier fish of the Columbia River.

I opted instead to chase walleyes in the Columbia Gorge and that turned out to be a fantastic choice.

My neighbor and I fished the stretch of the Columbia between Miller Island and Rufus, Ore., repeatedly this spring. We got lucky with multiple days of no wind.

By the end of May, we had adopted a new rule: We’d keep no more than 20 for the boat for the day because that’s plenty to clean and how much walleye does one need in the freezer?

We caught nine walleye on Dec. 2 last year fishing between Giles French Park boat ramp at Rufus and Maryhill State Park on the Washington side of the Columbia.

That whetted the appetite for this spring. Once the creel checks from the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife started indicating catches of five to seven walleye per rod in March, the decision was made to forego spring salmon this year and learn as much as possible about mid-Columbia walleye.

I’m no biologist, but it appears there’s boom in the walleye population right now. Not only are the creel numbers excellent for The Dalles pool, but for John Day pool, too.

Eric Winther, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife project leader for the northern pikeminnow sport reward program, said the bycatch of walleyes in the pikeminnow program was about 860 in 2015, but 1,861 in 2016.

“Our pikeminnow dam angling crew got a lot of walleye bycatch last year,’’ Winther said. “I’ve also received lots of other anecdotal info from pikeminnow anglers about the tremendous numbers of walleye last year and this year.’’

Buzz Ramsey, brand manager for Yakima Bait Co., and a resident of Klickitat, also has participated in the walleye festival this year.

“Most guides and anglers I talk with think the good fishing is due to a strong walleye year class prompted by the warm water two years back,’’ Ramsey said.

“What the department (of fish and wildlife) notices is that when the salmon fishing is good there is a steady, but low, number of anglers chasing walleye on the Columbia near Rufus,’’ he said. “But when the salmon fishing is closed or not good, the department sees a sharp increase in the number of participating anglers and 500 walleye a day coming out of the Rufus area.’’

Last December, we caught walleyes in the middle of the Columbia, at depths from 25 to 50 feet.

But this year, with more than 400,000 cubic feet per second of flow in the Columbia, the boat floated downstream at 4 miles per hour with the engine in neutral.

It was far too fast to even get our gear on bottom.

However, find a point of land sticking our from shore, get in the slower water behind the point, and the bite most often was steady. The slower stretch of water might only be a couple hundred yards, but that was enough.

We’d troll downstream using 3- or 4-ounce bottom walkers with a chartreuse spinner and double-hooked worm harness. A Cabela’s spinner worked well, but even better was a Mack’s Cha Cha Crawler in the green sparkle or orange black tiger colors with a nightcrawler.

We caught fish in as few as 12 feet and as deep as 49 feet. Once the protection of the point of land was lost, and the current increased the speed of the boat, it was time to reel in and run back upstream. Keeping the offering on the bottom and feeling the tap of the bottom walker is key.

Washington and Oregon eliminated size and catch limits on walleye in the Columbia a few years back. That was to try to reduce the number of predators of young salmon and steelhead.

“Some anglers are not happy about the no-limit rule thinking the walleye numbers will shrink due to overharvest,’’ Ramsey said. “Still others believe it’s a big river and the harvest will continue to be good in coming years. Guess we will all find out.’’

When visibility in the Columbia was down to about a foot, it seemed to make no difference to the walleye. We noticed no particular improvement in fishing when the water cleared some in May.

Walleye are great table fare, and offer a lot of fun during times when salmon and steelhead fishing are lean.