Catching Spring Chinook

by Scott T. Starbuck , May 02, 2016

From northern California to Canada, and the Pacific to Idaho, few secrets are as carefully guarded as uncrowded areas for spring bank-caught salmon. Each time one of my fishing buds gives the slightest hint of a clue of a lean in that direction, my phone goes dead, his email is lost, or I have to remind him “I don’t text.” I turned the ringer off on my phone nine years ago. Even my wife, Suz, and I had a big fight over it. We were raised fishing the same rivers like the Molalla and Clackamas, and ocean reefs, so I guess it was only natural sooner or later she demanded to know my springer spots. "Look," I said, "I bought you a diamond ring. Isn't that enough? I'm not giving you my secret fishing holes that took a lifetime to find. That kind of intimacy and trust takes years. If it's okay with you, I'd like to keep them between me and God." She said it wasn't okay.

"Let me get this straight," she said. "You trust me enough to marry me, but not enough to show me your secret fishing spots?"

"How it is," I said.

She responded by purposely knocking off one of my big spring chinooks with the net (She swears it was an accident. Yeah right.). Of course, we broke up over it. It was a nice fish that by all rights should have been in the box.

Now we are back together, and using her mermaid magic, she has my secret spots. Or thinks she does. I didn't tell her I learned from a Joseph Campbell video how Navajo US Army scout and storyteller Jeff King left out an essential piece of the story until the initiate was ready.

Why, you may wonder, are you so extreme as to not even tell your wife? The answer is these fish are my favorite to eat. At $18 to $27 a pound during prime season, I can’t afford to show up somewhere that previously had zero to three anglers, and see 30 to 40. If that happened, I couldn’t get my regular 16 fish a season from rivers to get me through the year. In plain terms, a 20 pound cleaned springer is worth about $400. Add another, and that is an $800 morning. All of which is saying, springer fishing is serious business. Plutarch's Moralia notes ancient Spartan mothers told sons “Return with your shield, or on it.” At least one Oregon mother told her son going after springers “Return with your fishing rod, or on it.”

So what’s the point of this article? is the obvious question. The point is if you want to catch a coveted bank-caught springer away from the crowds, put your time in hacking blackberry vines, searching maps, and getting permission from landowners; or get a boat, or hire a guide. However, if you want to go it alone bank-fishing after hearing all this, here is my advice.

Local Knowledge

Go where people regularly catch springers, and watch everything they use and do, right down to the gnat’s eyelash’s mite’s eyelash. I mean study gear, hook, bait, length and size and kind of leader, exact placement and depth of lure, time of day, and if you are really serious where they go to church and color of their socks.

Study a Watershed

I found springers to be more picky than steelhead about where they pause in upriver migrations. In general, springers like it slow, dark, and deep which makes sense if you consider these 10 to 30 pound brutes a short while ago had an entire Pacific ocean to forage. Maps on my blog < > show chinook in our area travel as far as the Aleutian Islands past Dutch Harbor into the Bering Sea. That is how they get so big and delicious.

Good Bait Makes All the Difference

After over 40 years of doing this, I see the same guys in same spots at the same times of year on my springer travels from coastal rivers to Idaho. They are all expert anglers, but on some days one of them is slaying fish after fish while the rest of us look on in mouth-watering amazement. Why? It’s the bait cure the fish want that day, and to show how serious these fish are, they ignore everyone else’s bait moving within inches of the same water. I asked one successful angler his secret and he said it took over 20 years for an old-timer to share it, and there was no way in hell he was telling me. I said I understood. If you read my last article “How to Outfit a Fish Car,” you know these fish “can smell parts per billion.” GrrlScientist, formerly of The University of Washington in Seattle and science writer for The Guardian, gave me permission to include a SciLogs article “Salmon, scent and going home again” January 17, 2011, in which she noted:

"In the November 1978 issue of Pacific Search, author C. Herb Williams described a Canadian study where a nearly homeopathic solution containing one part of human skin dissolved in 80 billion parts of water was dumped into a river. Astonishingly, the scent from this solution was sufficient to stop migrating salmon for as long as half an hour. Additional experiments by Canadian scientists show that salmon will either slow or stop their migrations when certain human smells are present in the water, and trout — another salmonid — show distinct flight responses when a fisherman washes his hands upstream. [par break] This offensive scent was identified as the amino acid, serine, which — because human skin contains serine — has led to some fishermen to refer to this as 'the serine problem'."

This means when I catch a hen, I cure her eggs that night so I can fish them at daylight without being frozen. I keep my hands clean, and on sweaty days wear white latex gloves. One angler said I was Michael Jacksoning it, but I had a salmon, and he didn’t. Many years of experimenting led to my current egg cure recipe. Reel blazing runs, $800 fish mornings, and beet-red spring salmon steaks make it all worth it.

A Friends of William Stafford Scholar at the “Speak Truth to Power” Fellowship of Reconciliation Seabeck Conference, Scott T. Starbuck’s two books of fishing poems are River Walker, which sold out in less than a year, and Lost Salmon forthcoming from MoonPath Press this summer. Starbuck’s writing focuses on the clash between ancient sustaining forces like wild salmon rivers with modern industrial lives. His most recent book is Industrial Oz: Ecopoems. His blog Trees, Fish, and Dreams is at


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