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  Great Washington Getaways Home  |  Lower Columbia River
Photo: Man holding large steelhead caught in the Columbia River using the "plunking" technique.
Steelhead (pictured) and Chinook salmon show up to the lower Columbia River mint-bright. There is no better time to catch these fish than summer and no easier method than plunking. Photo by Jeff Holmes
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  Plunking the big river: Lower Columbia salmon and steelhead
Each summer and early fall, millions of salmon and steelhead return to hundreds of rivers and streams throughout the state to spawn. None of these rivers funnel more of these iconic Northwest fish into inland waters than the Columbia, which offers some of the best salmon and steelhead fishing in the state. Especially popular among anglers is the lower section of the river below Bonneville Dam, where the fish arrive from the ocean in waves.

State fishery managers and anglers have celebrated abundant returns to the lower Columbia in recent years. These fish—most bound for upriver tributaries above Bonneville Dam—are at the peak of their fighting ability and their value as table fare while moving through the lower river. Moreover, they are generally willing to bite the lures and baits of anglers skilled or lucky enough to locate their travel lanes.

For some, the big river can be tricky and expensive. Many anglers trailer their boats across the state to get in on the action, while others hire a guide to navigate the lower river’s challenging and often crowded waters. Either approach can require considerable cost and effort.

A simple, inexpensive approach to catching fish

On the other hand, “plunking” from the river’s many beaches can be both productive and affordable.

Photo: Man holding 35 pound Chinook caught from the banks of the Columbia River, Washington.
Hefty Chinook -- like this 35-pound brute -- can be caught in summer and early fall. Photo by Chris Donley

This approach requires little more than a heavy casting rod and reel, a rod holder, a small assortment of bait and lures, some 6- to 12-ounce pyramid sinkers, and a bell to signal strikes. Serious plunkers use a special setup called a plunking rig, designed to maximize their chances of success.

Plunking from the lower Columbia’s beaches, sand bars, islands and points is great for ambushing migrating fish, but also allows for kicking back in the summer weather. Sunbathing, camping, barbecuing, swimming and more bring anglers from around the Northwest in search of fun and some of the finest fishing.

With its close proximity to the ocean, the lower Columbia is tidally influenced, and so are its fish. The best fishing for salmon and steelhead is typically on the outgoing tide and during tide changes, although fish are caught on the incoming tide as well. Many anglers plan their days to take advantage of ideal tidal conditions.

Finding a productive plunking spot can be as easy as visiting existing beaches where plunkers gather. These include Frenchman’s Bar Park in Vancouver, Dike Road near Woodland, Kalama Beach near the town of Kalama, Willow Grove and County Line Park west of Longview, and Puget Island. Hamilton Island near Bonneville Dam is also a good spot – and with a little scouting and a boat, the whole river opens up.

For out-of-area anglers looking for lodging as well as family activities in the area, websites for the Wahkiakum County Chamber of Commerce, City of Longview and Vancouver USA Regional Tourism Office offer starting points. There are also several state parks near the Columbia with camping, including Reed Island, a marine park located on the river itself. State Parks officials strongly recommend that campers reserve space well in advance of their vacation.

Good news for plunkers: Steelhead run shallow

For plunkers, summer steelhead are generally easier to catch than Chinook salmon, because they tend to run at shallower depths along the river’s shorelines. From spring through mid-summer, they usually travel in 6 to 12 feet of water, moving slightly deeper in August as the water warms up. Of course, salmon anglers sometimes incidentally hook steelies in 40 to 50 feet of water, but steelhead generally run very close to the bank.

Photo: Woman holding large steelhead caught from the banks of the Columbia River, Washington.
Larger, “B-run” steelhead become available for plunkers once the Idaho-bound fish enter the lower Columbia, usually in late August and September. Photo by WDFW Staff

The biggest push of steelhead is typically in July and early August – both have seen record angler landings in recent years – but as numbers decrease in mid-August, the fish increase dramatically in average size.

Most of the main run in July and August is comprised of 4- to 8-pound steelhead known as “A-runs” with some larger fish showing up. The second, smaller and later run is comprised of much larger steelhead that spend two, three, and sometimes even four years in the saltwater, getting long and fat on the bounty of the sea. When these “B-run” fish enter freshwater in August and September, they average 11 to 14 pounds, and some can be much larger. These bigger fish are bound for the Clearwater, Salmon, and Snake Rivers of Idaho, but are available to Washington anglers first and in optimum condition.

Casting deep for Chinook

Plunkers can also catch Chinook salmon off the bank during early and midsummer, but rising water temperatures in August tend to make anglers focus on deeper water just as the huge waves of fall salmon begin to wash into the Columbia. Finding their travel lanes requires anglers to locate places along the river where islands or the shoreline are a short cast away from deep water (25 to 50 feet).

Some plunkers target deep-running salmon by using a kayak or boat to run their baits into deep water before returning to the beach. But this practice sometimes creates conflicts and is more work than most plunkers bother with, especially with shallow-migrating steelhead moving upstream within a short cast of banks and sand bars from Bonneville to the estuary.

Plunkers who travel via boat to find isolation and excellent fishing opportunities look for beaches, islands, points and midriver sand bars in close proximity to the river channel. Most of the lower Columbia is sandy, which is desirable, but rocks and debris certainly exist. Plunkers pioneering “new” fishing spots must experiment a little, but once they locate a bank in close relation to good current and a drop-off close to shore, the odds of intercepting swarms of upriver-bound steelies improve. In late summer when the Columbia’s water is well above 60 degrees, steelhead seek refuge in cool water whenever possible, and both the Cowlitz and Lewis Rivers’ mouths attract huge numbers of fish to these thermal refuges.

Assembling a plunking rig

Photo: Plunking rig with flag.
A violent strike from an upriver-bound salmon or steelhead puts a quick end to the silent, peaceful sight of a pulsating plunking rod and a flag blowing in the breeze. Photo by Jeff Holmes

While some plunkers keep it simple with a sinker and a single bait, state fishing regulations allow anglers to fish up to three hooks on their rigs. Most plunkers run three baits with one hook each so to increase chances of a bite. A typical plunking rig from bottom to top, without the baits yet attached, consists of the following: a heavy lead sinker, a 40-pound monofilament section to a spreader bar, another mono section to another spreader bar, and another mono section to a top swivel.

The length of the leaders and overall rig length are dictated by a combination of an angler’s height and arm length joined with the length of the rod they use. For example, a 6’4” man with a 12-foot rod can cast a much longer plunking rig than his 5’2” daughter with a 10.5-foot rod. What stays constant and does not vary between anglers is the length ratio between the mono sections in the plunking rig and the leaders with baits. Although it is desirable to have as long a leader as possible, one’s leader must be at two to three inches shorter than the mono sections to keep the baited rig from snagging during the cast.

Once a plunking rig is set up and an angler is standing on the beach ready to cast, the anglers affixes baits on 30- to 40-pound monofilament leaders to each of the two spreader bars. Then, in one sweeping motion to avoid tangling the rig and baits, the angler tosses their plunking rig into a likely travel lane, waits for the weight to settle and stick, and then puts the rod in the sturdy rod holder and reels up any slack.

Baiting your hooks

Photo: Two men posing with large Chinook salmon caught from the beach of the Lower Columbia River, Washington.
Catching chrome-bright summer and fall Chinook salmon on sunny days from lower Columbia beaches tends to inspire big smiles—and sunburns. Apply plenty of sunscreen early in the day, and then wash your hands well.  Chinook and steelhead alike don’t like sunscreen or human scent. Photo by Chris Donley

The next step is to add a third bait to the taut and already cast plunking rig, which is much easier than it sounds. Most anglers do this by tying a bait-wrapped plug (Kwikfish, FlatFish, Mag Lip, etc.) to a mono leader and by tying a duolock snap to the other end. The small side of the duolock snap is clipped around the main line, and the angler then slides the snap down the taut mainline until the plug catches the current. At this point, using the action and resistance of the buoyant plug, the current pulls it into fishing position against or near the top swivel in the plunking rig. The final step is to affix a bell and an optional flag for visibility and to wait.

Plugs wrapped with sardines or tuna, coon shrimp behind winged bobbers, or spinner blades buoyed by drift bobbers and baited with coon shrimp are the most popular baits. Fishing blogs are loaded with tackle and technique advice from experienced plunkers, and tackle shops in Longview, Woodland, and Vancouver offer excellent resources and effective gear and bait. In general, however, smaller baits work better for steelhead, larger plugs for salmon. Beginners might be wise to focus on steelhead using small lures baited with coon shrimp, knowing that salmon also regularly hit baits intended for steelies. A number of different colors of dyed bait, winged bobbers, drift bobbers, and plugs work well, but good colors to start with include pink, red, purple, orange, and green.