by Jason Brooks, September 10, 2017
Launching the drift boat we pushed off into the glacial silt water running from the base of Mt. Adams. A few quick strokes of the oars and then the anchor dropped. We had simply slid from one side of the river to the other where a deep slot ran along the basalt rock bank. The move over was simply a ploy to keep our hole as other boats had pulled in behind us to launch in the Klickitat river canyon. Sitting on anchor and wrapping the plugs with herring fillets once the rods were set the anchor was pulled and we slid as slow as possible down into the slot. On our first pass the inside rod bent over and stayed down. I knew to let the rod load up before even thinking of grabbing it out of the rod holder. Jeff Geary of Geary’s Guide Service knew it too and violently rowed to set the hook using the backstroke of the oars. The rod stayed buried and the Fall Chinook was hooked.
We slid the boat back to the middle of the river as I fought the fish until it tired and then back to the boat launch to land it. Once in the net it was a quick photo session and then back to our slot before another boat arrived at the parking lot.
A few more passes and then it was time to switch from wrapped plugs to bait divers and egg clusters. This did the trick as we hooked another fish, this time it was Loren that had the hot rod and a hot Chinook. Soon we found ourselves back at the boat launch with another fish. We joked about how we wouldn’t need the shuttle service as at this rate we would be limited out and never have left the launch area.
Unfortunately, we didn’t hook another fish in this hole so we did have to move on. A series of rapids followed by deep runs and holes for the next several miles. A few take downs and a few lost fish. It was the first hole jinx, as no other fish were landed but it was still a good day. One that was a repeat for me as I had fished the canyon before and had caught fish in that very first hole in previous trips. I have also fished the canyon on foot as the river has a lot of bank access for the boat-less angler.
Typical techniques for the canyon are back bouncing eggs, using a bait diver with eggs and sand shrimp, floating eggs, or wrapped plugs. There are also several tailouts and long flats that are perfect for swinging spoons or spinners. Of course the Klickitat is a very well-known fly fishing destination as well with several fly companies offering guided trips. Geary has lived his whole life in Klickitat and knows the river very well. We had floated from the “Ice house” launch down to the town of Klickitat itself, which has a very nice launch/take-out and a long grassy area that a bank angler can plunk from or float eggs.
If you have a drift boat or a raft, then there are miles of river to float with several boat launches. Starting at the top of the canyon near the hatchery is a launch for rafters as the water is very skinny here and boulder strewn. Further downriver is the Summit Creek launch and another mile downriver is the Leidl camp launch. A short distance downstream is the improved Stinson Flats launch and a WDFW Access Pass or Discover Pass will be needed to launch here. These launches comprise what is known as the “upper river” and have a lot of boulders and technical water. Only those that are experiences on the oars should fish the upper river, but it is also a great place to catch a few late summer steelhead in September as well as some fall Chinook.
The middle river is where I have fished the most in the canyon. The Ice House launch and the launch in the town of Klickitat are the main put in’s and take outs and this area has some rapids and technical water but is mostly a series of flats and deep slots and pools.
You can get by with just one set of rods geared up for bait divers or pulling plugs and do well. There is some bank access along the way as the river flows next to highway 142. Look for a pullout and hike down to the river. For the bank angler floating eggs under a bobber is your best bet as some of the bank access is steep and creates a deep hole right at the roadway edge.
Past the town of Klickitat towards the Columbia river are several more launches, each of them offering some bank access. The Upper Pitt and Lower Pitt areas are rough launches around mile marker 10 on highway 142. A four-wheel drive truck is recommended for these launches. The next one down is three pines, a steep bank where you can slide a drift boat it but have a little difficulty pulling one out. There is good bank access here and fish the edge of the steep bank, again floating eggs and sand shrimp. There are two more launches, one at 7 mile and one at 5 mile, named after the mile markers on the highway. Both are primitive with 5 mile being a take-out only, as it’s your last chance to get off of the river before going down into the gorge where the river cuts through the volcanic rock, sometimes as narrow as 10 feet and flows swiftly. No boats or rafts should ever go down this part of the river as you are certain to sink your boat and drown. There is more bank access though below 5 mile for the bank angler and this can be very good water to fish, especially since there will be no drift boats going by.
The other well-known fishery of the Klickitat is the mouth, at the deadline in the Columbia River. Though this is big water and can be just as dangerous as the canyon with afternoon winds causing white caps and a long run back to the nearest boat launch at Rowena on the Oregon side of the river. Either Washington or Oregon licenses will work at the mouth of the Klickitat as long as you stay out in the Columbia. A larger boat, at least 16 feet is a must due to the high winds, after all this is the famed Columbia River Gorge.
The mouth fishery is perfect for hover fishing. This is a pretty specific way to fish. A short seven-foot rod with a sensitive tip and strong backbone is needed. A level wind reel spooled with 40 to 50 pound braid to a slider 2 ounce cannonball weight and a 24 inch leader of 20 pound test clear Izorline XXX and a size 2 hook. Using a small gob of Pro-Cure Last Supper cured eggs which is specially formulated for this type of fishery and a few drops of Pro-Cure Anise Bloody Tuna bait oil. Lower it until the weight hits the bottom of the river and then take one or two cranks on the reel and put the rod tip just above the water. Watch your rod tip and as it slowly dips set the hook hard. The idea here is that the Chinook hug the bottom of the river and usually just open their mouth and allow the bait to suck in but they don’t hammer the baits like in running colder water. Instead they just mouth the bait and this is where your rod tip will just barely dip as you slowly drift in the stagnant current.
If hover fishing isn’t producing for you and you like to troll, then go a little deeper where there is a shelf near the main channel of the Columbia. Using long rod and 50 to 65 pound braid with either 8 to 10 ounce dropper weight or a downrigger is a must. Terminal tackle is pretty simple, using a Yakima Bait Big Al’s Fish Flash or a Dodger with a 48 inch leader to a Brads SuperBait in Hot Tamale or Lava stuffed with canned tuna fish and Pro-Cure Anise Bloody Tuna Super Gel.
The Klickitat river has a strong run of fall Chinook. One advantage to this fishery is that if the winds kick up on the Columbia then head up into the canyon. If the winds are calm then head to the mouth and fish the big river where more fish stack up and catching can be fast and furious. This river and area offers great fishing, a lot of history with Mt. Adam’s just up the road, a deep gorge where tribal fishing has occurred for hundreds of years, and of course the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area.