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Spring has sprung

RAINIER — Slowly trolling the lower Columbia River, guide Bill Monroe Jr. can’t help but become transfixed at the colored blobs on his fish-finder’s screen.

“Staring at this thing can drive you bonkers,” he says.

But then some reddish blobs on the screen get Monroe geeked. The electronics are programmed to light up when it hits on fish bodies below the size of early spring chinook salmon, the first and arguably best tasting salmon of the new year in the Northwest.

“We’re definitely right on a couple,” Monroe says. “Let’s hope that one bites.”

Seconds later, a rod baited with a cut-plug herring starts to wiggle and bounce. Let him eat it, Monroe says, almost until that bait is half-digested.

With a snap, the chinook is on and minutes later the 11 pounds of iridescent beauty is in the net, ready to grace a dinner table like nothing else the Northwest can cough out on a sunny April morning.

Nothing says spring better than spring chinook on the lower Columbia, where big water and big boats and big fish all conspire to create a fishing opportunity like none other in the West —a bucket list experience for anyone who enjoys catching and eating the Northwest’s signature salmon.

Spring chinook are somewhat of a rarity in the West, with most salmon rivers sporting fall runs of fish. “springers,” however, enter Northwest rivers months earlier than their fall brethren, despite spawning inland within weeks of each other.

Spring chinook come in brighter and with more fat content than fall chinook, and the contrast is no greater anywhere than in the Columbia.

Some of the chinook passing through this sleepy little fishing town of Rainier are headed more than 1,200 miles up the Columbia deep into British Columbia. They have fat layers that ooze on barbecues, creating the succulent fillets that can fetch close to $100 a plate at New York City restaurants.

So when an 11-pounder is thrashing at the end of your line that includes barbless hooks, there’s no messing around.

“Keep the pressure on, and don’t stop reeling,” implores Monroe, a seasoned Portland-based guide and son of former Portland Oregonian outdoor writer Bill Monroe Sr.

Within seconds, a swift swing of the net puts the hatchery fish into the net, the first step toward the backyard barbecue.

“There you go, Kokomo,” Monroe laughs.

It’s a classic Lower Columbia springer. The sun glistens off its side to create an iridescent, violet glow. And the skin is so bright it as if these salmon came out of the ocean with two AA batteries to guarantee it’s shimmer.

“We call them purple-backs,” Monroe says. “This is a big deal. This is awesome. Absolutely awesome. Good stuff. That’s why we’re here.”

The Rogue River and lower Columbia are the two rivers in Oregon to offer spring chinook, the first salmon of the year and easily considered the best eating of all Pacific Northwest fauna.

During the 1962 World’s Fair in Seattle, a salmon cook-off produced two clear winners. Lower Rogue springers ranked first, with lower Columbia springers a very close second.

But that’s where the similarities part.

The Rogue is a relatively thin river with a run now dominated by wild fish that, for most of the season, must be released. Anglers fish mostly in driftboats while focusing on the major salmon migration lanes through currents and around tight corners.

The Columbia is the biggest waterway in the West, with a shipping channel about 100 feet deep. Barges, container ships and even U.S. Navy vessels are denizens of that deep water.

Salmon generally are not.

Monroe says migrating chinoook favor side-channels anywhere from 15 to 330 feet deep, still hovering right off the bottom but moving along in the slower current.

Also, baits like full anchovies favored on the lower Rogue give way to cut-plug herring. That’s a herring whose head it cut off at a 45-degree angle.

The effect is to create a spinning bait that appears to be injured, easy pickings for salmon not interested in burning more calories chasing what its food generates.

If it’s spinning, it’s winning,” he says.

Also, the immediate relationship between an upper Rogue angler and a springer is different.

When a Rogue springer hits, anglers need to set the hook and bury that barb into its lip. On the Columbia, the required barbess hooks make for a much longer give-and-give-more relationship between man and salmon.

“Wiht barbed hooks, we always want to bury the hook and set the hook so fast,” Monroe says. “Now, we just let the fish do it’s thing. We cater to the fish. The amount of willpower it takes is immense.”

Like on the Rogue, most wild springers are released. However, the release rates are much higher on the Rogue.

The Rogue’s spring chinook catches are about 70 percent wild; on the lower Columbia, the hatchery contingent is upwards of 80 percent, so a bite is more likely to end in something for the barbecue than not.

Still, regardless of how anglers might rue releasing a wild Columbia springer, the karma of doing so remains just as strong as it is on the Rogue.

There’s a little piece of zen there,” Monroe says. “I appreciate it.”

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470 or mfreeman@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MTwriterFreeman.