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Fish on! First-time Salmon Fishing on the Columbia River

While I am now officially a Pacific Northwesterner, last year at this time I was just getting my sea legs – a term which, now that I live virtually surrounded by water, also includes bay legs and river legs.

Having grown up on one of Pittsburgh’s three rivers, I spent plenty of time around water. I’ve fished in cold moraine lakes and from the shores of trout streams, and while I’m not entirely comfortable on or in the water, I find that I am still drawn to it. Or maybe I’m just drawn to what comes out of it.

I consider myself unfairly fortunate. I drink my morning coffee while watching the sun rise over the pristine and spectacular Willapa Bay, backdropped by the clouds tumbling across the Willapa Hills. At the same time, I can hear the ocean over my shoulder, a mile across the Peninsula. But the water that thrills me, that make me more likely than not to make an extra trip a week “into town” to shop in Astoria, is the broad, open mouth of Columbia River. So mighty that explorers Lewis and Clark thought it was indeed the ocean when they first came upon it, it’s an impressive and formidable waterway, now spanned by the impressive and formidable 4 mile-long Astoria-Megler Bridge.

When the Chinook are running upstream, the four quadrants of the lower Columbia known as “Buoy 10” – above and below the bridge, Washington and Oregon sides – are a parade ground for sport fishermen.

Hundreds of boats bounce across the chop, rods singing and nets flying.

Every time I’d crossed the bridge, I’d pined to be in one of those boats, one of these days, and at the height of last fall’s salmon season, serendipitous timing and a generous invitation gave me the opportunity to angle with two seasoned (and pretty cute) fishermen. The kind that know about bait balls and tuna poo, how to read the slack of the tides, who know how deep the fish are running and what lures are hitting.

I’m eager to do pretty much anything I’ve never done, even if it involves spending several hours in a boat without a privy (though I was told there was a Marine Sanitation Device, which I discovered is another name for bucket). So I arose to a drizzly dawn, put on what I thought was adequate gear (yoga pants and a sweatshirt), and packed a cooler with sandwiches and beer.

The beer was a bitey (and appropriate) Fish Tale Ale, perfect with make-ahead Italian pressed sandwiches. These sandwiches will last for days (and actually improve in flavor and texture), but you won’t be keeping them around that long.



  1. Slice four ciabatta rolls and spread the bottom of each with black or green olive tapenade (sun dried tomato pesto would be nice too).

  2. Layer on 2-4 Italian deli cold cuts – Genoa salami, hard salami, capicolla, mortadella, prosciutto – whatever you  find or fancy.

  3. Add a slice of provolone (mozzarella works too but provolone is more flavorful)

  4. top with some chopped roasted red pepper (jarred is fine but I made mine fresh)

  5. Drizzle the top half of the roll lightly with some olive oil and balsamic vinegar.

  6. Top the sandwiches, then wrap tightly in plastic wrap. Set them in the fridge under a weighted cookie sheet for a couple of hours to press them together and meld the flavors (a six pack in a cooler is an acceptable substitute).


My fishing companions (neither of whom would call themselves “he” men, but trust me, they are)

made quick work of launching the boat from a lesser-known “local” launch. Not knowing what to expect, and being a Los Angeleno for nearly 30 years, I was woefully underdressed. I did bring extra clothes – shorts and a tank top. Apparently I’m not the first newbie my guide has taken out – he provided me with some hot and sexy rubber pants and a very warm and welcome raincoat.

So while my fella headed out to pluck seafood in shells from the bottom of the bay, I was heading out in a boat on the Columbia River, somewhere between the Astoria-Megler Bridge and Tongue Point, hoping to not fall in, tangle a line, earn the nickname “puker,” or pee in my host’s chest waders.

As soon as we were underway, the men started prepping the lines and getting us ready to fish. The first order of business for all is to wash your hands in a bucket of river water spiked with Lemon Joy dish soap. Salmon have a strong sense of smell (likely a factor in guiding them to their natal riverbeds). Anything smelling, well, fishy, will turn them off, and suddenly, you’re not fishing. And making sure you are “fishing” is the first rule of fishing.

The men took care of me. They baited my line with anchovies and a helmet-head, showed me how to pull out and drop the right amount of line, how to reel in (dip, reel, lift and repeat), how to quickly pop the rod from the holder.  I was told there would be drive-bys, and reassured that the most awkward amateur could get one “on the boat” while the most experienced could lose it at the net – or to a sea lion, whose heads you could see popping up every now and then, snuffling for air.

I was abashed at having this attention and TLC, but was reassured that it was good luck to have a newbie and a woman on board. I was told definitively that I would get a fish. And it was a bumper crop year  – a return of over 650,000 fat Chinook, Coho and Steelhead was expected – it all bode well. That and the fact that I followed my instinct to not bring any bananas on board (bad luck!) – maybe I was a natural angler after all.

I learned that fishing is an active engagement while remaining a zen experience.

It’s observing the swing of the tides, plucking grass off your line, making sure the bait is spinning. I also learned that the most important piece of fishing gear is a good pair of binoculars. As soon as a net is spotted on a neighboring boat, the binoculars come out to spy at what worked for the lucky fisherman – the rod, flasher, whether bait or a lure was used, if the line was weighted, how big a fish. “Green diver, pink flasher, Lami rod!”

About 30 minutes out, the men reminded me to check my line for grass, make sure my lure was spinning, make sure I was fishing. I chucked the pole from its ring, dipped, reeled and pulled. Dang it, it was snarled in something nasty. Reeled and pulled again. This time it pulled back.

“Fish on!” one said, “Fish fish fish!” said the other. I didn’t have grass on the line, I had a salmon.

The men set their poles and jumped into action, pulling in their own lines and grabbing a net. They encouraged me patiently as I dipped and reeled. To my great amazement, moments later, I drew a sleek, 10 lb. silver Chinook from its brackish bath. The men netted it and we pulled it into the boat. Of course I wanted to cry and release it back into the wild, but a quick, merciful bonk on the head with the fish bat changed Samson the Salmon from my pet to my dinner.

We got one in the boat. A good sign and a good start to the day to have the binoculars trained your way. As soon as the fish was on deck, the men dropped their lines back into the water and baited me up. After a photo session, Samson went into the cooler, the other boats went back to their own business, and we settled back into fishing.

An hour or so later, our captain got Fish #2 on board. The morning fog and drizzle burned off, chest waders were peeled down to t-shirts. We had some sandwiches and cold ones and made a quick trip to shore for an alfresco rest stop. Back on the river, the men took turns steering the boat over bait balls and into secluded spots, but the bite was off. Time to changing the rigging. Maybe put a lead on, a yellow flasher. Try a diver or some tuna poo. But even when the salmon are so thick they’re leaping out of the water in flashes of mercury, sometimes they’re just not hungry. It was time to go in.

The only angler having any luck…

My host cleaned my beautiful fish for me, and back home, Oyster Man and I had some sweet sashimi for dinner. And now I am spoiled for salmon in the way I’m spoiled for oysters, clams and crab.

The next evening, we were hosting a small, special dinner party on the deck on the bay, and I wanted a simple, delicious way to show off the gorgeous red fillets. This recipe from Mark Bittman’s “How to Cook Everything: The Basics,” is essentially roasting the fish in a bit of good butter, and has become my go-to technique when our generous friends show up with their day’s catch.


I served the perfectly-cooked fish with Andrew Weil’s Kale Pesto, which I’d recently had at friends Elayne and Sarah’s, taking their advice to reduce the garlic by half. This sauce is scrumptious, works on anything, and keeps very nicely in the fridge or freezer.



Adapted from Andrew Weil’s True Food Makes 2 cups

  1. 8 cups stemmed chopped black kale (2 bunches)

  2. 1 cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano

  3. 3/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil

  4. 1/2 cup pine nuts

  5. 2 garlic cloves, chopped

  6. 2 teaspoons salt

  7. 1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes

  8. Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Fill another large bowl with ice cubes and cold water

  9. Blanch the kale in boiling water for 3 minutes. Using tongs, transfer kale to ice bath. After 3 minutes, drain kale in a colander, then squeeze firmly to remove excess water.

  10. Put kale and remaining ingredients in a food processor and puree until smooth. Transfer to a container, cover and refrigerate until ready to use.


Our late-summer picnic was a wonderful success – buttery salmon, cold Prosecco, an orange moon, and me getting to tell a fish story.


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