It wasn’t something I would normally do. My fishing trips typically consist of solo ventures or with one or two family members or close friends. So to hire a fishing guide and join four strangers on a boat on the Columbia River was definitely out of the ordinary.
But that’s what I did, on a whim, after an ad from Northwest Drifters Guided Sport Fishing popped up on my Facebook timeline.
Though I had grown up salmon and trout fishing as a kid in southwest Washington, I am by no stretch of the imagination an expert fisherman. In fact, it wasn’t until 2020 that I got back into the fishing after a 10-year hiatus, mostly due to a drug addiction that had lasted equally as long.
Salmon fishing was good to me last fall as I relearned everything I had previously honed as a teenager, such as tying knots, figuring out which lures and bait to use and what type of water to look for. I was able to stock my freezer with a handful of kings and cohos, but it was steelhead that eluded me. I spent three months trekking five different rivers in search of the elusive state fish and still came up empty handed.
I think that’s why, when I saw the Facebook ad and knew spring Chinook, sockeye and steelhead were flowing through the Columbia at this very moment, I decided to take a chance and hire a guide while I waited for fall salmon season to begin.
It was 4:50 a.m. on Friday, June 18, when I departed my apartment in Centralia for a small town in southwest Washington on the Columbia River with a sack lunch, $200 in cash and hopes of catching a salmon or steelhead.
I arrived at the boat launch at 5:45 a.m., 15 minutes before the meet-up time, as I found a parking spot and hurriedly grabbed a sweatshirt and coat, slipped on my brown XTRATUFs and made my way toward the docks.
Halfway down the boat ramp, I heard my name called and spotted a black, 20-foot guide boat with four people inside. There, I was greeted by Josh Carlton, the owner and guide, along with three other clients who were also excited at the chance of hooking a fish today.
After introductions and Carlton giving us the rundown of what we’d be doing, we took our seats, puttered out of the harbor and made our way south on the Columbia toward the honey holes.
Carlton, who’s in his ninth year as a guide, had everything rigged up and ready for us. All four of us clients had matching NW Rods fishing poles, made by a company in Kalama. The poles were each rigged with a flasher, which are flat, tapered pieces of plastic about a foot long that flash and spin while being trolled behind a boat.
Myself and another client had a gold and red lure about three feet behind the flasher, while the other two clients had a hoochie filled with tuna on the end of theirs.
This was my first time trolling for salmon as I’m a bank fisherman with no boat. Carlton’s instructions were simple, however. Drop the setup into the water, reset the line counter on the reel, slowly let out 25 feet of line and lock the pole into the rod holders while he trolls the boat at about two mph.
There was the usual small talk as we puttered back and forth in 35 feet of water about 100 yards off the Washington bank of the Columbia River, with the Oregon bank about a quarter mile off to the other side.
As we waited for our poles to make quick, short plunges which indicated a fish had bitten the hook, I learned the three other clients were all from the Tacoma area, two of which were paramedics. That soon turned into the eventual question of “What’s the worst thing you’ve seen on the job?” I’ll spare you the details in case you’re eating lunch while reading this.
On a day when Carlton said we’d fish until after high slack tide, which was around 12:30 p.m. that day, it only took us 30 minutes before one of the clients behind me yelled, ‘fish on!’
Carlton put the small trolling outboard in neutral and began giving instruction to the client, who grabbed the pole out of the rod holder and began fighting the fish. Carlton grabbed the net as the other three of us quickly reeled our lines in to prevent getting tangled up with the fish.
Before long, the client had tired the fish out and brought it close enough to the boat so Carlton could swoop it up with the net.
As he held the fish in the water inside the net, he disappointingly told us, “grab me the pliers, I’m going to have to take the hook out and release this one in the water.” A collective groan filled the boat as only hatchery fish can be retained, meaning this fish must have its adipose fin and be a native.
Then all the sudden, he whips the net out of the water and into the boat while yelling, “Just kidding! We’re bonking it, boys!” as we all cried out in cheers and celebration.
It was the first of four times Carlton would get us with that line, each time upping the ruse to make it seem more and more believable.
Even when I finally hooked my fish, the third of the day for our boat — a roughly 10-pound Chinook — I fell for it again. His jokes made it just that more sweet when he whipped the net back into the boat and a chrome fish landed on deck.
Hiring a guide for the first time, you never know how good they are going to be and if you just wasted $200 or not. It quickly became clear that Carlton knew what he was doing, evidenced by the fact that multiple guide boats, after seeing us land four fish, had hollered at Carlton while trolling past, asking what depth we were fishing at.
All four of us clients each landed a keeper, all within the first three hours of fishing, and even though the final three or so hours were quiet, we were all content knowing we had secured a fish for the day.
That one keeper was my only bite for the day, but I relished in the warm, cloudless sunny day as 200-foot-plus container ships chugged past us toward Portland, Oregon.
I watched people walking the beach on the Washington side with their dogs, chatted with my four new fishing friends as we awaited the next bite and periodically savored the fact that I would normally be in the office on a Friday.
High slack tide eventually came and went and it was time to head back to the harbor, about five hours after we untied from the docks. Our boat landed four fish and had 11 total hooked. When we reached the docks and talked to another guide boat that was pulling out for the day, they had landed one fish and had two total hooked. I think all four of us clients felt we had made the right choice in a guide.
Carlton filleted each of our fish on the boat and packaged them up for us. For a six-hour boat cruise, the opportunity to catch and land a Chinook salmon, get two fillets out of it and with Columbia River Chinook salmon going for about $45 per pound in the grocery store, I feel I got my money’s worth for the day.
I asked Carlton to save the head as the other three clients looked at me in disbelief. “You’re going to eat the head?” one asked. I explained that my girlfriend makes fish stock out of them and freezes it to use in seafood dishes later on. They all offered to give me theirs as well.
After collecting my fillets and four fish heads, I made my way up the ramp and to my car. As I drove back home north on Interstate 5, I began thinking of the upcoming coastal river Chinook season that will likely start August 1. I figure this was enough to tide me over until then.