Source: Marvin Henkel Jr.
2023 Update: See the current season forecasts for the Willamette River spring salmon run below.
The Willamette River hosts one of Oregon’s best spring Chinook fisheries, with plenty of hatchery run salmon that allow anglers to bring some of the best-eating fish home.
The salmon fishing starts in the Lower Willamette during the late winter.
The springers then disperse into the Clackamas River or pass Willamette Falls toward tributaries well up into the Willamette Valley through spring and into early summer.
The Lower Willamette River flows through downtown Portland and then splits below the St. Johns Bridge. The main body takes a direct path to the Columbia, while Multnomah Channel veers northwest to meet the Columbia well downriver at the city of St. Helens. The forks form Sauvie Island.
The lower Willamette generally is open all year to the daily harvest of two fin-clipped Chinook salmon (fin-clipped steelhead you may catch are counted in the same daily limit).
Anglers need a special endorsement in addition to angling license and harvest tag to fish for salmon, steelhead and sturgeon throughout the Columbia River basin.
However, anglers should check the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife website for restrictions sometimes imposed after the printing of the Oregon Sport Fishing Regulations book, if the run forecast is too low to allow that much fishing.
Unclipped (wild) chinook and steelhead must be released unharmed.
If you end up farther upriver, consult your regulations booklet for a description of closed fishing areas below the falls at Oregon City and the West Linn Paper Company tailrace.
When to Catch Spring Chinook
Fishing guide Marvin Henkel Jr. typically starts fishing the lowest part of the Willamette in late February.
The spring Chinook fishing here often holds up well in this lower part of the river until the middle of May, although Henkel often switches to sturgeon fishing before then.
Fishing slows for Chinook when the Willamette gets too muddy, following heavy precipitation up in the valley.
Check the tide tables for Kelley Point before you go. Henkel prefers fishing for springers here through the incoming tide, with the best bite often occurring from an hour before to an hour after a tide change.
Where to Catch Spring Chinook
The favorite fishing spot below the St. Johns Bridge is at the head of Multnomah Channel, where migrating springers headed straight up the Willamette converge with other Chinook that turned up the channel at St. Helens.
In the area Henkel fishes, the typical water depth is 18 to 25 feet, and the fish hug the bottom through here. He generally sticks to an area that is maybe a half mile above to half mile below the channel and also slightly into the channel.
At times, the fish in the lower river will bite better in the deeper areas, such as the shipping lanes.
At those times, Henkel often will fish where the river bottom is 50 to 80 feet, upstream from the channel toward the St. Johns Bridge.
He also will fish over water almost that deep in the Willamette below the channel, toward the Columbia River, especially on the Sauvie Island side where the bottom is often 40 to 60 feet deep.
In both of those deeper areas, he has the most success fishing in mid-range depths, perhaps 20 to 30 feet beneath the surface.
How to Catch Spring Chinook
The current here typically isn’t strong enough for anchoring to fish, so Henkel and most anglers stick to trolling for them.
He’ll often run his boat in a big square that takes him above and below the head of the channel and into it a little ways.
In this area, where the water isn’t too deep, you’ll want to stick to the bottom.
Your weight should hit the bottom every 10 to 15 seconds. If it’s not doing that, lower it until you are making frequent contact.
If it’s dragging constantly, reel up until the weight gets into the bouncing pattern. Adjust frequently as the river depth changes.
Henkel’s preferred bait is herring, which he fishes both as cut-plugs or as whole baits.
While some guides only fish herring plugged, Henkel finds that certain days the salmon seem to prefer whole baits, which are quicker to rig.
He usually starts with at least one rod rigged each way to gauge what the salmon want that day.
Green label is the most popular herring size in the spring, although larger baits are fine for making cut-plugs.
Henkel employs a 50-pound TUF line for his main line, with a 6-ounce cannonball sinker on a slider to get the bait down to the fish.
Use a bead chain swivel and then a mooching rig with a 7- to 8-foot leader (30-pound test) with 4/0 and 5/0 hooks.
He likes a sliding hook rig (he buys pre-rigged Gamakatsu brand hooks) so he can pull a slight bend into the bait to give it a nice, slow roll while moving through the water. He can adjust to a faster roll quickly, if desired.
Some anglers add a flasher to their rig, but Henkel likes them plain – other than very frequent applications of Smelly Jelly (various scents work) to the herring. Using a diver is also an option some anglers prefer.
When Henkel moves to deeper water, he switches to a 10- to 16-ounce sinker and typically fishes up off the bottom in 20 to 30 feet of water, or roughly 16 to 25 pulls. He tries different rods at different depths until he establishes the right depth for current conditions.
When fish strike a trolled herring, usually one of two things happens.
Sometimes the fish will hook up immediately and start peeling off line. Give the rod a tight jerk and then keep your rod up and line tight for the big fight.
Other times the pole will slam down to the water and pop right back up. The springer probably “stunned” its prey and might come back for its meal.
Quickly pull 10 to 12 feet of line off the reel and watch for your rod tip to begin another dip toward the water. Give it a tight jerk to set the hook.
While Henkel nearly always trolls herring while fishing between St. Johns and the Columbia, other options include a Luhr Jensen Kwikfish (with a herring or anchovy wrap), a trolling spinner, or a prawn trolling rig.
Henkel would rig these off a leader behind the same set-up he uses for herring.
2023 Willamette River Spring Chinook Forecast
The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife estimates that 71,000 spring Chinook salmon will return to the Willamette river in 2023.
That’s a pretty decent forecast, roughly 20,000 more than the 51,200 they predicted last year and around 15,000 more than they calculated actually showed up in 2022.
Forecasts predict similar trends for the Columbia River and several other tributaries with springer runs.
Here’s the ODFW’s current salmon return forecasts.
As you can see, forecasting isn’t an exact science, but better forecasts certainly raise our hopes that better catches will result.
If All Else Fails
If you’re not having success, change up your approach. Put on a fresher bait, add scent, change depths or bend your herring more for a faster roll.
“Do something different,” he said.
And then, if it’s just not happening, Henkel switches to sturgeon fishing.
Marvin Henkel Jr. of Portland has been a professional fishing guide since 1999. His clients at Marvin’s Guide Service fish for salmon, sturgeon, steelhead and walleye in the Columbia and Willamette rivers and on Tillamook Bay.