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June hogs

RAINIER, Ore. — The outgoing tide was just starting to pick up as a warm morning sun broke through the fog that shrouded the lower Columbia River.

It’s witching hour on the lower Columbia, when the best angling hotshots start plying the waters with plugs for the biggest of salmon — summer chinook — in this biggest of Northwest rivers.

Buzz Ramsey, one of the best known of the region’s salmon wizards, bounces his plug downstream, intent on letting the 3-ounce weight hold just off the bottom 90 feet down from the boat.

It never got there.

A 14-pound summer chinook inhaled the plug like a whining baby to a pacifier, and the game was afoot.

Photo by Jon Decker Buzz Ramsey, left, holds a 14-pound summer chinook salmon caught on the lower Columbia River with guide Bill Monroe, Jr.

Several minutes later, guide Bill Monroe, Jr. slips his net under the chinook colored in a mix of white, chrome and gun-metal blue.

“There it is,” says Ramsey, who helped create plugs for brands Luhr Jensen and Yakima Baits.

“Not the biggest,” Ramsey says. “But they’re all great.”

“Not great but still special” could be the moniker for the Columbia’s once-mighty summer chinook run, which this year turned into a better-than-average fishery on this majestic river’s so-called “summer hogs.”

Summer chinook are considered the Columbia’s healthiest chinook run, and this year’s estimated run of 77,600 adults is one of the best in the past decade of runs averaging closer to 50,000 fish, according to the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife.

These fish once tipped the scales at triple-digits, making them the main target of sport and commercial anglers for well over a century.

“That’s why they were known as June hogs,” says Bill Monroe, Sr., the guide’s father and a long-time outdoors writer for the Oregonian. “Just that classic chinook of the Columbia.”

Summer chinook are considered the healthiest of the Columbia’s wild chinook stock because no component of them are protected under federal Endangered Species Act, which cloaks all other Columbia runs of salmon and steelhead.

Though they are out-numbered by current returns of spring chinook, it was not like that 140 years ago.

Ramsey says data show that summer chinook runs averaged 4 to 5 million annually into the Columbia in the 1880s, supporting a bulging commercial fishery that was as lucrative as it was dangerous.

Sailboats worked gillnets near the river’s notoriously dangerous mouth. Their catches were legendary.

“There were photos of 100-pounders,” Monroe says. “These guys in Astoria with the gillnets were hoisting fish as big as they were.”

Now catching them is a matter of watching the tides.

On outgoing tides, particularly in the early morning, the M.O. is to anchor boats and run out plugs like Kwikfish or Mag Lips, which Ramsey helped design and popularize over five decades in the industry.

Spiced with a concoction of tuna and anise, the smell and wiggle of the plugs pick a street fight of sorts with the chinook migrating toward any of four hatcheries or tributary streams mostly in the Priest Falls area east of Portland.

Wild fish get a free pass. Hatchery-bred fish sporting clipped adipose fins get a not-so-free redirection into the cooler.

Summer chinook and spring chinook runs overlap in the lower Columbia in early summer, but they are distinct and easily discerned by the keen eyes of the trio of seasoned anglers.

While spring chinook have large swaths of black blotches on their backs, summer chinook sport much smaller and fewer of these tell-tale chinook markings.

No longer can anglers judge a spring or summer chinook strictly by size.

The gene pool that produced these triple-digit monsters of yore has been all but depleted. Now summer chinook half that size are worthy of social media bragging rights.

“These days, I know a number of anglers who have caught 50-pounders,” Ramsey says. “It’s rare, but it does occur.”

But don’t count Ramsey among that ilk. The biggest summer chinook Ramsey has coaxed out of the Columbia was 35 pounds.

“I’ve never caught a 40-pounder,” he says. “Some day.”

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