If you’re interested in fishing for Chinook salmon on the Columbia River, you have almost certainly heard about the famous spring run. You may be wondering what sets a spring run Chinook salmon apart from the other runs and whether there is anything special about them. You may also be wondering exactly when, where, and how you can catch one.

In today’s post, we’ll answer all of these questions.

What is a Spring Chinook Salmon?

The Chinook salmon (Oncorhynchus tshawytscha), also known as the king salmon, is an iconic gamefish of the Pacific Northwest as well as a close cousin of other species of Pacific salmon and trout.

As we’ve discussed before, the life cycle of these fish starts with them hatching in freshwater streams, where they spend the first few months of their lives, sometimes up to a year. After that, they’re off to the ocean, where they grow from juveniles to adults.

As with practically every other species of salmon, Chinook salmon return to freshwater from the ocean, making their way upriver to spawn and die. Chinook are particularly large for Pacific salmon, so they can spawn in larger gravel than their smaller cousins.

Now for the interesting part: unlike other species of salmon, Chinook salmon return to the rivers to spawn in three major seasonal windows, or “runs,” and on average, the fish of each run have their own distinctive characteristics. The three runs are the summer run, known as “June Hogs,” the fall run, known as “Upriver Brights,” and of course the spring run which is our subject here.

Technically, a spring Chinook salmon is any Chinook counted at the fish ladders between January 1 and June 15, but it’s a bit more complicated than that. While the spring run may be defined for that period of time, the season is shorter: the 2018 spring season was from March 1 to April 7. However, the fishery managers decided to re-open the fishery for a special spring season which began on May 25 and lasted through June 6.

What’s So Special About Spring-Run Chinook?

Is there anything special about spring Chinook salmon on the Columbia River? The answer is yes: they’re known for being particularly delicious, and Chinook salmon are delicious to begin with.

Spring-run Chinook salmon usually average about 8-12 pounds, with some larger fish in the 12-20-pound range. This is on the small side for Chinook, but the fact that they are good eating makes these fish particularly worthwhile.

It is no accident that spring-run Chinook are so tasty: they are mostly composed of the so-called “stream-type” Chinook, as opposed to the ocean-type Chinook. The two are distinctive population groups with different life histories and spawning grounds.

The stream-type Chinook are most commonly found in the headwater streams of large river systems. As the name suggests, they are particularly dependent on streams: as juveniles, they spend longer in freshwater than their ocean-type cousins, gaining size and strength before heading out to sea.

Because of this particular life history, stream-type Chinook migrate farther out to sea to mature before returning to spawn as adults. When they do return, they mostly come in the spring and summer runs – and they come early because they have farther to travel. The ocean-type Chinook return during all three runs, but they account for very little of the spring run, being much more common during the summer and fall runs.

The spring run, therefore, is a particularly good chance to hook one of these remarkable, and remarkably delicious, fish.

Fishing for Spring Chinook – When, Where, and How

If you’re in the Portland area – or really, anywhere in the Pacific Northwest – the Columbia River is your best bet for hooking a spring Chinook salmon. There really is no better fishery in the Portland area: the fish are abundant, the river is breathtakingly beautiful, and the nearby city of Portland, Oregon means you’ll have plenty to do on land as well as on the river.

Granted, we’re partial, but if you visit the Columbia River you’ll quickly discover it’s hard not to be a fan: the river is a true icon of the Pacific Northwest, and it is the fourth largest river in the entire continent of North America.

The Portland to Astoria area is noted not only for the quality of its fishery but also for the scenic beauty: there are even national and state parks in the area. The forests are green, the mountains are usually snowcapped, and the cliffsides are nothing if not impressive.

If you enjoy other outdoor activities, there’s no reason you can’t book a salmon fishing guide, go on your chartered trip, and then go camping, or boating, or simply take in the natural beauty of a park.

Besides, it’s Portland, Oregon: there’s never any shortage of things to do.

Now that we’ve addressed the where let’s talk about the when. The spring season is set every year by the fishery managers based on a variety of factors having to do with climate and likely fish numbers.

Last year it was set from March 1 through April 7, with a bag limit of two adult salmonids (Chinook or steelhead), of which only one could be a Chinook. While the official dates for the spring of 2019 have not been announced as of this writing, they will most likely be similar to the spring season of March 1-April 7 for 2018.

With the where and the when addressed, let’s talk about how. Hiring a salmon fishing guide for a charter on the Columbia River is, far and away, the best option for experiencing all the river has to offer and increase your chances of hooking a fish.

The practical reality is that finding salmon in a river is an art and a science, one that your salmon fishing guide will be only too happy to simplify for you. A good guide will have a fish finder and know how to use it, but they will also have a deep knowledge of the fish and the river: where to go, how to set up the rig, how to fish in order to maximize your chances of hooking a fish.

Best of all, with the right guide, you can sit back and enjoy your experience fishing for spring-run Chinook on the Columbia River.

To find out more about how we can help you get a spring Chinook experience you’ll always remember, please drop us a line.