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Highlights from Steelhead University's 2016 "Springerpalooza"

Chris Vertopoulos navigates through Twin Rocks for good luck before a day of Spring Chinook fishing on Tillamook Bay.

Steelhead University's Springerpalooza consists of one day, five guest speakers, and a wealth of information on targeting spring chinook.

Terry Wiest, writer for Salmon, Trout, Steelheader magazine and author of the books "Float Fishing for Steelhead" and Steelhead University, Your Guide to Salmon & Steelhead Success," also created the Steelhead University website as a resource for professional guides to share their knowledge with ambitious anglers seeking information on how to improve their tactics.

On March 12th, at Fisherman's Marine & Outdoor, Wiest organized an event called "Springerpalooza," with 5 guest speakers on targeting spring chinook, including some of the areas top guides for the Columbia, Willamette, and Tillamook fisheries.

Author Terry Wiest Organized the Event with the help of several sponsors
Author Terry Wiest Organized the Event with the help of several sponsors

Professional guides Terry Mulkey, Chris Vertopoulos, David Johnson, Brian Campbell and TV host from Outdoor GPS, Owin Hays, all gave hour-long presentations at the event on everything from trolling to plunking. Registration for the event was just under hundred dollars, and the information shared during the course of the day was priceless.

If you were unable to attend and hear the secrets from the pros, here are some notes from each presentation that might help you this season. These tidbits and suggestions equate to an encyclopedia's worth of fishing knowledge.

Terry Mulkey

Sea lions are a hot topic among spring chinook anglers, and particularly guides. The increased presence of these marine mammals have changed the fishery and how professionals target springers. Fish tend to be tucked on the bottom due to there being less current. In recent history, the presence of these predators have pushed fish into the depths, and less fish are suspended higher in the water column.

Terry Mulkey offers his knowledge to the room
Terry Mulkey offers his knowledge to the room

Mulkey suggests you troll downstream, targeting the edges of drop offs. While salmon tend to hang out on flats overnight and move into the deep during the day, they will stay close to these edges so they can quickly transition their depth for their own safety. Maintain your course over these ledges for the best success throughout the day.

Don't get too hung up on the color of your flasher. Even trying something different when everyone else is using the same colors can trigger a hot bite. While there are hot colors that work during different periods of the season, relate the use of UV to the light conditions and water clarity. Avoiding the use of bright UV colors when the water and skies are clear, and leave some contrast in with the flash, such as a blue or purple on silver flasher.

Use a bead chain directly on the flasher and an additional bead chain on the bumper to avoid twist. Ideally a 24" Flasher leader made from Maxima's 40 lb flourocarbon is stiffer, so it spreads out the gear better and prevents tangles with the flasher. A 48" leader to lure will get your presentation far enough behind the gear, but not so far that the fish is out of reach of the net.

Guide Chris Vertopoulos of Northwest Angling Experience

Chris Vertopoulos takes to the water to provide his clients with the Northwest Angling Experience

February through July tends to be the range of the springers showing up in the Portland Harbor. As water reaches 55 degrees, Vertopoulos says to transition from bait to trolling spinners. Keep fresh, sticky hooks. Make sure when you replace hooks, that they're same size so that they don't affect the action of the spinner in the water.

65 lb braid is the standard for trolling bait, but transitioning to 80 lb will allow a rod to work a spinner farther behind the boat with the increased drag from the line diameter.

Sometimes getting a weight caught in the net while the fish is trying to break free can be total chaos. Using a different colored line on the dropper makes it easier to know which line to cut the weight from the rigging if there's a tangle in the net while trying to land a fish.

Rig three 4/0 Gamakatsu wide gap hooks separated from about 2" eye to eye on 25 lb ultragreen. In murky water conditions, the addition of green/chartreuse beads, smile blade, or a small spinner blade above the first hook can increase the visibility of your presentation.

Using a swivel cover or scent chamber swivel will help prevent line from catching in the swivel and creating tangles.

This is what the fishbox of a professional looks like in the spring

Pro-Troll Flashers are deadly in the fall, and even effective upriver in the Hanford Reach during the Summer. However, they don't work as well for lower river springers because generally they like a presentation that moves a little slower. Anything below 3 mph is ideal, while a higher speed troll is more effective for the action of the Pro-Troll Flashers.

As springers transition from the Columbia into the Willamette, fish will start to suspend more often. Use the fish finder to know what depth to target fish. A smaller bait is better, but to increase visibility, use Pro-Cure's powdered dyes, particularly chartreuse.

While removing the guts of your herring has long been thought to offer a better scent to your presentation, it is not completely necessary, however it will create a better roll. What's more important is scraping the backbone of herring. Scraping the bloodline (which is actually the kidney) that goes along the backbone will release additional natural scent from your bait.

When doing a brine, use anise extract from the baking section of the grocery store. Anise oil separates and does not "marinate" as well in the brine. Anise extract is also alcohol based, and breaks down foreign oils.

Clean fish slime from gear after a catch. Fish emit a "fear pheromone" that can contaminate the scent of your presentation.

Cover as much water as possible. Zig-zag downstream; this allows some rods to sink on one side of the boat and rise on the other, covering more area in the water column. Stagger lines in the water column at different depths as well. A longer leader is helpful when there's choppy water. A shorter leader will pull the bait out of the strike zone, while a longer leader will buffer the motion of the boat.

Early fish, especially Willamette fish, tend to be slightly larger. Just in front of the mouth of Swan Island is a good place to target these monster springers. Multnomah Channel is snaggy, but it's best to still fish on the bottom. Lengthen up the weight dropper slightly to prevent the rest of your gear from snagging bottom.

David Johnson of David Johnson's Guide Service

David Johnson presents his secrets to a packed room
David Johnson presents his secrets to a packed room

Simple rigging to fit the size of the bait you're fishing will increase your hookup rates. David Johnson says to use two 3/0 Gamakatsu hooks with Green Label Herring and 4/0 Gamakatsu hooks for Blue Label.

Dave Johnson Herring
David Johnson's Herring Brine

When brining herring, Pro Cure's Bad Azz bait dye can be very effective, however less is more with some colors, particularly blue. Salty brines work better in the Columbia closer to the ocean, while "popsicles" (frozen raw herring) are better for upriver, inland fisheries like the Willamette.

Downsize your hooks to 2/0 and 1/0 for prawns. Salt will help toughen up your prawn cures.

Dave Johnson Prawn

When fishing wrapped plugs, rewrap them with fresh bait every half hour or so, says Johnson. Injecting or marinating the wrapped plug with Pro Cure's Gel Scents also helps refresh the bait. Use a 5ft leader with plugs of 50 lb Maxima Ultragreen.

If a fish is going to hit a loud, noisy, wobbling target, that vicious reaction strike is not going to be from a fish that is line shy. Rig double split rings, and allow two points of the treble to hang down, with one point sticking up towards the bait. This will improve your hookup ratio by exposing more points to the fish.

Dave Johnson Plug

For best results from the action of your plugs, use a Mag Lip for trolling and kwikfish for anchor fishing. The Kwikfish has wider wobble and "hunts" while stationary, but a Mag Lip runs more true when trolling, requiring less tuning and staying in line with all the gear.

When targeting fish with bait and diver, drop down to 25 lb Maxima Ultragreen leaders. Generally this tactic is more effective in slower flows, and the smaller diameter will help get the presentation down. Just like a vertical seam that you would target while bobber fishing, the diver catches horizontal seams where the current changes at deeper points in the river and around structure.

Water temperature and clarity vary by year, so sometimes the Willamette will fish earlier than the Columbia if the water coming in is warmer. Those fish will slow down as they reach the drastic temperature change. While there may be less fish, they may be more inclined to bite.

Owin Hays, host of the television show Outdoor GPS

Long rods are standard for targeting springers from the bank, Hays told us. Typically 13' to 14' are ideal for being able to cast the rigging without tangles, and load up on hooksets while the rods are positioned in holders. Use a quality rod holder, don't prop your rod up on a twig.

For a double rig, leave 48" of separation between spreaders, and 30" leaders on your leaders to the hooks. For a triple rig, shorten leaders to the hooks, and split the 48" in half with your third leader.

TV Personality Owin Hays instructs the room on plunking tactics


Presentations are simple, but adding a bobber stop above a spin and glow will keep it in place during the cast and while your gear is settling into place. Bait isn't always necessary, but a skirt for adding scent is a valuable addition when the conditions call for it. Water soluable scents will not inhibit the action of the skirts.

A very short dropper to the lead will help keep your presentation closer to the bottom where the fish are. Too much lead is better than not enough.

Young and old were in attendance, and those that came in wearing their Outdoor GPS hats were handsomely rewarded.
Young and old were in attendance, and those that came in wearing their Outdoor GPS hats were handsomely rewarded.

When fishing near Bonneville, odder colors and increasing the size of the spin and glow will trigger more strikes in high fishing pressure situations. 3/0 and 4/0 hooks, sometimes tipped with bait, can help turn on the bite.

It's recommended to beginners to avoid Bonneville and start somewhere with lots of space to practice casting all your gear, like Sauvie Island. Try to avoid spots where there are sandy bottoms. Feel for how the weight hits, and how long it takes to hit bottom.

Using a bell is not only effective at letting you know when a fish has taken the bait. It also means that the anglers around you might want to move in closer and crowd you out. Also, be aware that Sea Lions react to the sound of bells. There are devices available that will notify you by a buzz on your phone that a strike has been triggered if you want to keep quiet about it.

Brian Campbell of Brian Campbell's Guide Service

The peak on the Willamette tends to happen around the end of April, into the first few weeks of May. Tributary Springers peak in the end of May through the month of June.

Brian Campbell
Spring smiles on board Brian Campbell's boat

There simply can't be enough emphasis on using braided mainline for backbouncing. The weight combined with the stretch of monofilament will increase fatigue at the end of the day. In faster water, pick up the rod faster or more often. In slower flows, have more patience pulling the gear off the bottom.

For a diver/plug set up, give the dropper to the diver more length since both are diving. It will keep the plug from jamming the hooks into rocks and snags you can't easily get out of. Use a 6' leader from swivel to plug, and an 18" dropper to the diver. When fishing tributaries without the diver in clear water and cloudy conditions, the gold or copper colors are deadly, while UV colors are more effective in murky water. The Mag Lip 3.5 is an ideal size for upper river tributaries. Beyond downsizing the plug, downsize your bait wraps, while also changing them out frequently.

Terry Wiest greets a young attendee. Youth under 14 get into Steelhead University Seminars FREE
Event host Terry Wiest greets a young attendee. Youth under 14 get into Steelhead University Seminars FREE


While an entire day of absorbing information is tough to put into words, hopefully this Cliff's Notes version of the seminar can be of value. Stay tuned for more classes from Steelhead University, including "SaltwaterPalooza," which includes presentations from guest speakers Dave Phillips on Jigging for Tuna, John Childs on live bait tuna fishing, Todd Girtz on targeting Halibut and Ling Cod, and Tommy Donlin on Ocean Fishing for Salmon. The event takes place at Sportco in Fife, Washington on March 26th. Youth 14 and under get in free, food, beverages and door prizes provided to every attendee.

Without the event sponsors Shimano, GLoomis, Maxima, Simms, Trophy Fish Replicas, Wicked Lures, Pautzke, and Salmon Trout Steelheader, something like this would be impossible. Special thanks to Fisherman's Marine and Outdoor for hosting the event.


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Rare Golden Walleye Caught from Oneida Lake

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Highlights from Steelhead University's 2016 "Springerpalooza"