The summer runs of Chinook salmon (Oncorhynchus tshawytscha) are something of a Pacific Northwestern icon. Dubbed “June hogs” for their immense size, in the 19th century these fish commonly reached three to four feet in length and attained weights of over 60 pounds.
But then came the canning industry, which put millions upon millions of tons of June hogs into metal cans. Mining and agriculture degraded the river habitat, and the dam-building boom of the early 20th century, particularly the Grand Coulee Dam, cut off much of what remained.
In more recent years, however, recovery efforts have resulted in a viable, thriving summer Chinook fishery on the Columbia River. The contemporary June hog averages about 25 pounds, though they can be larger. For today’s fishing guide we’ll look at these remarkable fish, including their natural history and how to increase your chances of hooking one by retaining a good guide for a fishing charter on the Columbia River.
June hogs, as we have seen, are Chinook or “king” salmon (Oncorhynchus tshawytscha), closely related to other species of Pacific salmon and to many species of trout, and more distantly to Atlantic salmon, brown trout, and other salmonids. Like many other species of salmon, as well as the steelhead rainbow trout, Chinook salmon are anadromous: they are marine fish, but swim upriver to lay their eggs in freshwater environments.
There are three great waves or “runs” of Chinook that enter the Columbia and other rivers at different times of the year, swimming upstream to spawn: the spring, summer, and fall runs. Both the spring and summer runs have a longer distance to travel than their conspecifics in the fall run, which is why they enter freshwater earlier in the year.
As juveniles living in freshwater streams, Chinook salmon mostly consume insects and small crustaceans, such as amphipods. Depending on the run and the stream, they leave freshwater for the ocean between three months to a year.
Ocean-living adult Chinook mostly eat other, smaller fish, but as they go upriver they become progressively more focused on their journey, and less interested in eating. What this means is that the window of opportunity for catching them, the “bite” for any given day, begins to diminish the farther upriver you get.
Fishing for June Hogs
With June hogs, the bite varies throughout the day. You may have heard that you need to be out on the water with hooks baited at first light. There is indeed a “first-light bite,” but there are also morning bites, evening bites, and tidal change bites.
Any fishing guide worth their salt will know where to go, the locations on the river where you will have the best chances of getting a strike. The experience of a salmon fishing guide with a local area, such as the Columbia River, is particularly invaluable for this very reason.
Closer to the ocean, tidal changes can incentivize summer Chinook to feed, since the tides cause schools of baitfish to clump together. This is the “tidal change bite.” There are indications that salmon may feed throughout the night, but few anglers take advantage of this owing to the challenges of fishing in darkness.
Locating summer Chinook is best accomplished with a fish finder, and this is another reason to get a good fishing guide for a fishing charter on the Columbia River. Not only will your guide have a fish finder and be familiar with how to operate and interpret it, they will also know the areas that are most likely to have fish, saving valuable time when you are trying to get into position ahead of the bite.
Since Chinook salmon eat mostly small fish, lures that mimic their prey are a good bet, particularly when rigged with flashers. Jig lures, metal lures shaped to look and swim like baitfish, are a good bet. Indeed, Chinook have been coaxed into striking jigs even when other methods have failed. Like all Chinook, summer Chinook have very sharp teeth, so you’ll want a heavy leader, about 30-40-lb test. The line should be about 20-lb test, given the average size of summer Chinooks.
Another option is bait. Chinook salmon, like other salmon, are known to take salmon eggs, or roe. They will also take packaged herring.
Fishing Charters for the Columbia River
One of the best ways to experience the Columbia River summer Chinook fishery is to hire a guide to take you (and your party, if applicable) out for a chartered fishing trip. A guide offers a number of benefits, starting with the use of a boat and equipment and tackle.
A good chartered guide will make sure you get your money’s worth. A big part of this is knowing where to fish. Our own charter service offers fishing from Astoria upstream to Bonneville Dam, depending on where the fish are biting and where we think the best chances of a successful trip are.
Rivers can look fairly mysterious, from a fishing point of view, unless you have a great deal of experience and know where to go and what to look for. Summer Chinook salmon, like other fish, respond to different features of the river bank and river bed, both for shelter and because of where they find food. A guide can simplify much of this for you, thanks to their experience and their knowledge of how to use tools, such as fish finders, to locate larger concentrations of fish.
The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife has set the summer season from June 16-July 31 for summer Chinook and all other salmon and steelhead caught on the mainstem of the Columbia River. However, the season for retention, i.e. catching and keeping adult summer Chinook salmon 24 inches or longer, only lasts from June 22 to July 4—a mere 13 days.
With summer fast approaching, there’s no better time to reserve your spot for the upcoming season. A good guide can help to make sure you get the most out of the short summer season.
Whether you’re a first-timer or a returning enthusiast, we’d love to be a part of your summer Chinook fishing experience.
To find out more about how we can help you hook a June hog, please drop us a line.