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Trip ends without salmon during largest salmon run on the Columbia River in 20 years

by: OUTLOOK PHOTO: CARI HACHMANN - Four men fishing for Chinook salmon on the Columbia River near the mouth of the Sandy.Don Schneider pointed his boat away from the dock at sunrise, eager to start another day fishing on the Columbia River.

Joining him were three clients, all of whom had high hopes of hooking one, if not two, fall Chinook salmon, and one inquisitive newspaper reporter.

Nine hours later, the fishermen — all of them from the Mount Hood area — had caught and released two juvenile sturgeon, but came up empty on salmon.

Nobody went home entirely disappointed. It comes with the territory; it’s called “fishing,” not “catching,” for a reason, I was told.

Still, the events of the day left me a little confused, especially after hearing reports of this fall’s salmon run being the largest in 20 years, yet still no salmon in the net.

Don’s boat wasn’t the only one given a cold shoulder by the finicky salmon that day. Of the 25 or so boats anchored near the mouth of the Sandy River, we counted four salmon lifted out of the water.

by: OUTLOOK PHOTO: CARI HACHMANN - Fishing guide Don Schneider is owner of Reel Adventures fishing services.Don, a fisherman of 35 years, had his reasons: current’s too strong for fishing, water’s too warm for salmon, too many fishermen, salmon weren’t hungry, salmon are always on the move and you never know how fast they’re moving.

Then, perhaps the most unlikely of all reasons, it was discovered that I brought a banana on board. That lapse in fishing decorum was met with a swift reprimand.

Apparently, there’s a superstition among fishermen that bringing a banana aboard a boat is unlucky, and most skippers won’t let you step on with one — something about conquistadors pillaging the Hawaiian Islands of their women and bananas, which doomed the vessel and her crew when a witch doctor cast an evil spell in revenge.

Don, however, isn’t the superstitious type.

“I’ve caught halibut on a banana peel,” he said.

Now, back to not catching salmon, despite Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife forecasts of record high returns for the largest group of adult Chinook returning to the Columbia River — upriver brights — since 1987.

This year fishing authorities predicted 432,000 upriver brights (out of a total of 677,900 Chinook) would return upriver to spawn. Last year, 298,100 upriver brights returned.

Typically, the 2- to 5-year-old fish enter the Columbia River in late July and reach the lower river near Fairview and Troutdale by mid-August, before passing through the Bonneville Dam by mid-September.

6:11 a.m.

It was cool and dark when I arrived at the docks at Fairview’s Chinook Landing Marine Park on Thursday, Sept. 12.

Men were busy launching their boats and preparing their fishing lines for the day. One by one, they motored off into the shroud of fog hanging over the Columbia River. Everyone aboard each boat went with a shared ambition to fill their day’s limit of two salmon.

I noticed Don’s boat right away — burgundy-colored just like his truck, as he had told me the night before when he called to tell me when and where we were meeting. Things could change at the last minute, he said.

“You can’t go by what happened yesterday.”

The salmon had been biting lower on the Columbia near Rainier and Longview, Don said, and we were going to try to catch them as they moved upriver.

“You have to outguess them,” he said.

Don found me sitting on the docks with a camera and backpack.

“Ready?” he asked, in a friendly, if slightly un-enthused tone befitting of the early hour. Wearing a black Adidas windbreaker, he sported a gray Fumanchu and a weather-beaten tan with the nonchalance you’d expect of a fisherman who’d spent half his life on the river.

After joining Don on the boat, we motored around to the other side of the dock to pick up the clients — three men who I learned were old friends and grew up together in Sandy. They were Nathan Bent, 35, a car sales manager and Mt. Hood coffee shop owner; Bill Weatherbee, 37, an off-duty Sandy police officer who hadn’t been fishing in 10 years; and Bob DeSplinter, 36, a big, friendly man who had the summer off from whatever he does for work.

Eager for a day of fishing and catching up — sans work and wives — they loaded two coolers of beer and sandwiches onto Don’s boat, and handed him a wad of cash, $175 each.

Then we set out.

Nate said he relies on guys like Don to take him fishing.

“I always see his boat (in town),” he said, so when he wanted to go salmon fishing, he knew who to call.

Don owns Reel Adventures Fishing and has been a guide for more than 20 years, taking clients on his 24-foot Duckworth sled to fish for salmon, sturgeon and walleye. The Pendleton-born, Sandy-raised fisherman mainly tries his luck locally, on the Columbia, Sandy and John Day rivers.

7:01 a.m.

A salmon leaps out of the water after we anchor near the mouth of the Sandy River.

Through the fog, I count a hog line of 21 fishing boats anchored a few hundred feet away.

“Some guys go out to the same spot, day in and day out and hope for the best,” Don said. Prone to avoiding the congestion, Don tries to anticipate where the best bite must be between the Sandy River and Bonneville Dam.”

Upriver, a pinkish-orange sunrise breaks through the morning clouds, casting a pink glare over the calm blue-gray river.

Bill said he not only has not fished in 10 years, but he doesn’t eat fish either. The Alaska native was spoon-fed too much crab and fish the first eight years of his life and he no longer likes the taste.

Nate and Bob have been fishing their entire lives.

by: OUTLOOK PHOTO: CARI HACHMANN - Hoglines of fishing boats are a common sight on the Columbia River near the mouth of the Sandy River.Making of a fish run

John Seaborne, operation manager for ODFW’s fish division, said the size of an annual salmon run is dictated by a variety of factors. While droughts and floods can dry up eggs or wash them out of their spawning beds, large runs are the result of perfect water conditions and plenty of food for the fish.

“The grocery (store) in the ocean is a big one,” Seaborne said. “Good feed can lead to a strong survival rate and a lot of fish coming back.”

According to fish counts by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, 677,700 adult Chinook had passed over Bonneville Dam by Sept. 15.

So, according to forecasts, there should have been thousands of big, shiny salmon swimming beneath us. But according to our seasoned skipper, they weren’t biting.

“The bite hasn’t been all that good,” said Don, as he clipped a large chartreuse lure — wrapped with some sort of sardine or anchovy — to the lines of each of four fishing poles he’d propped on the railing of the fishing deck.

Moments later and with the lines in the water, Bill thought he saw one of the poles moving, a salmon tugging on the line.

There wasn’t.

“Oh, you’ll know,” Nate said. “There’s no guessing when an angry fish is on the other end.”

Keep it legal

The rules for fishing, mandated by the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, change all the time. Anglers must constantly check for updates. Generally, the season runs Aug.1 through Dec. 31, but if fish quotas are met, officials can close the season at any time on certain sections of the river. In the Fairview/Troutdale area, that’s usually mid-September.

To protect endangered wild salmon, anglers can only keep fin-clipped, hatchery-born salmon until Oct. 1.

This year, there’s a new rule that Don said is causing him to lose fish — barbless hooks.

Fishermen on the Columbia must use hooks without barbs to fish for salmon and steelhead.

While there may be rules set for fishermen, Don said there are no set rules when it come to fishing.

“It’s all luck of the draw,” he said.

Another salmon jumps right next to the boat.

“Yup, they’re in here,” Nate said.

Someone suggests moving the boat to another spot upriver, but Don said, “The truth of the matter is the longer you keep these lines in the water (and stay in the same spot), the better your chances are.”

8:24 a.m.

The wait begins, and the first seal is broken on the first beer can.

As the only female onboard, I worry how I am to stay hydrated without access to a bathroom. Turns out Don’s wife has established a special toilet for ladies on the boat — the Luggable Loo, basically a trash can with a toilet seat attached. While I have the privilege of using that, the men urinate in a juice jug.

Don has guided fishing trips for such famous clients as singer Whitney Houston and Arvydas Sabonis of the Portland Trail Blazers. I can’t help but wonder if Whitney Houston used the Luggable Loo.

“I’m not liking our situation,” Don said. “There is too much current, not much action.”

He reels in the lines, checks his fish finder and maneuvers the boat to another area where the river is deep enough, 36 feet or so.

If there is too much current, he said, the lures spin in circles instead of wobbling back and forth like a small fish that cause a salmon to strike.

9:20 a.m.

A boat downstream catches a salmon.

But on our boat, Bob pulls out two plastic bags of smoked salmon from a fish he’d caught a week earlier. It may be the first authentically smoked, non-grocery store, non-restaurant salmon I’ve ever tasted in my life, and it’s delicious. I immediately wanted more and Bob was happy to share. He also shared, although hesitantly, the recipe — given to him by his friend Ken “Birdie” Birdsong.

Bring 1/4 cup salt and a small box of dark brown sugar in water to boil. Then add ice cubes to cool the mixture. Slather it on the salmon, and smoke it for 16 hours. It will melt in your mouth.

9:30 a.m.

Bill catches a juvenile sturgeon, about 3 feet in length.

“He seemed a little lazy.”

by: OUTLOOK PHOTO: CARI HACHMANN - Don Schneider holds a juvenile sturgeon caught by his client, Bill Weatherbee, right, who lives on Mount Hood.Apparently, both sturgeon and salmon fight really well, but salmon fight harder.

But it’s all relative to the size of the fish.

Don said it once took four guys and three hours on his boat to catch a 14-foot, 900-pound sturgeon. He’s caught more than a few of those prehistoric giants, which can live up to 250 years. Don says the average-size sturgeon is dwindling because of what he reasons is competition with sea lions and Russian poachers.

9:37 a.m.

The same boat downstream catches another salmon.

“Funny, there are thousands of fish swimming below us and not one bite,” Bill said.

The next five hours consist of the clients consuming two 12 packs of beer while waiting for a salmon to bite.

Minutes are filled with stories and laughter, multiple urine breaks and the swatting of bees, which are equally interested in the beer.

Conversations ranged all over — past fishing trips, giant sturgeon, anchor catastrophes, river drownings, defiant sea lions and poachers, football tackles, bar brawls, Sandy High School memories, military deployments, hospital visits, old girlfriends, wives, kids, jobs, huckleberry picking, hunting, drug busts, DUII protocol, David Hasselhoff, “Red Dawn,” “Knight Rider” and tattoos.

Eight hours in, the conversation drifted into silence.

A calm came over us all as we stared off the end of the boat, zoning out to the drone of the rattling boat motor, bouncing fishing lines, and the rolling chop of the waves, sparkling in the high afternoon sun.

by: OUTLOOK PHOTO: CARI HACHMANN - There is plenty of time for clients to relax on Don Schneider's fishing trips.1:40 p.m.

“Fish! Fish on!”

Nate broke the silence.

False alarm.

There is no tug and no salmon. We must be getting delirious.

But not Don.

He’s stationed himself in a chair on the fishing deck and has yet to remove his eyes from the rods and the lines and the water except for a few times. He periodically swivels around to update us on our movements, the fish, other boats or another fishing story.

Another boat, another salmon

A man on a boat nearby is suddenly fighting a fish on the end of his line.

“Whatever he’s got on that line, it’s fighting,” said Bob, watching through binoculars.

“It’s definitely a salmon,” Nate said. “It’s fighting hard.”

“If it’s a salmon, it’s a big one — he’s doubled over,” Bob said.

We see a flash of silver and the man is holding up a 20-pound salmon, seemingly for all the other boats to worship. Nobody has to say it, but of course we wish we could catch a salmon like that, any salmon.

Bob said the best kind of salmon to eat are the shiny, bright chrome-colored ones.

It’s better to eat them before they turn black on both sides and “decay into zombie fish,” Nate said.

2:37 p.m.

I am wondering why the lines are still out and we haven’t started back to the docks.

Anxious, I remember Don’s advice from earlier: The longer you wait, the better your chance.

Nate feels it’s a good time to lecture me about the philosophical nature of fishing.

“Fishing is about one’s connection to thoughtlessness,” said Nate, whilst nibbling on the previous week’s bounty.

“It’s you, the water and the end of your pole and, that’s it.”

3:01 p.m.

Don starts the motor and we head back to the docks, empty-handed.

But like I was told before, it’s called “fishing,” not “catching,” for a reason.

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