Thursday, November 6, 2014

Best time to Fish (Fishing Guide Perspective)

Disclaimer*  I know that at least one of you uses more advanced tools to look at weather forecasts and possibly river conditions.  In the crowd there are physicists, flight controllers and the like who - I am confident - have better tools to predict weather patterns.  With that said I will walk you through what we look at to decide whether or not a river is at a fishable level.

There are several factors we look at to determine whether or not to recommend rescheduling a fishing trip.  River discharge in cubic feet per second (CFS), water clarity (turbidity), amount of fish in the river, condition of fish in the river and river traffic.  And of course a guides 'gut' feeling (Guides intuition) which is influenced by the above factors.  We are paying guides for their ability to catch fish and if they feel that they cannot catch fish we probably don't want to go out with them.  On the other hand if the river has a higher than average CFS and there are lots of fish in the river and your guide knows he can catch fish then we go for it.

Cowlitz River Fall Silvers Run is from September through November
This was taken late October 2014

Water Flows Cubic ft/s CFS

River discharge is used a lot when I am talking to customers about whether or not we should fish.  
Here are some links that will be helpful for this discussion and for your future reference:

As stated above, the river discharge in CFS is not a good indication of good fishing.  You also have to consider water clarity, amount of fish in the river, condition of fish in the river and river traffic.  Fish have certain habits when migrating up rivers.  In general for the Pacific NW, fish enter the stream and they will move from hole to hole upriver until you catch them or they reach their spawning ground or a fish hatchery.  We can call these 'fishing holes' you've heard of those right?  In order for the fish to move from the ocean or bay into those holes - there needs to be enough water for the fish to swim upstream into those holes and then from hole to hole.  

When there is very low CFS the fish might make it into the first hole or two in the lower section of a river.  The fish will stay there until they are caught or the CFS goes up and they can continue up stream.  There is also a problem with low CFS in that we guide out of boats.  We guide out of many different types of boats with differing hull degrees and different material on the bottom of those boats.  Some boats can easily make it down a river running at 200 CFS while others need 2000 CFS.  Some drift boats have a UHMV bottom on their drift boats which makes it very easy to glide over exposed rocks in the river during extremely low conditions.  Jet sleds can have a higher or lower degree hull which can vary from front to back of the bottom of the boat and dictate what level the river needs to be at for this boat to not hit bottom.  

Rivers can also be 'flooded' taking over nearby roads and fields with large debris floating down them.  This can be unsafe for you and the guides and it's easy to make the decision to reschedule.  When the river is not flooded but running at an above average CFS there are several things happening which go into our decision to recommend rescheduling.  When the river is above a certain level - the fishing holes disappear!  That makes sense right?  The hole that the fish stay in - where catch them - is literally flooded out.  The fish then disperse and are not in any predictable place in the river.   

If you look at this picture of a cross section of a river - the fish are going to be in the area labeled 'fastest current.'  Again, not a fish biologist, but I have been taught that the fish like oxygen rich water because they use their gills to take oxygen out of the water and into their blood stream.  The fast the current in general the more oxygen in the water during normal flows.  When there are rapids or other features which mix the water with the air - that is bringing more oxygen into the water.  On our rivers there are fast spots that are not class I or II rapids but they are still parts of the river where the water will be more oxygen rich and fish will hang out.  The part of the river above labeled fastest current is likely where rapids or other obstacles would be just upstream to increase oxygen in this water.

So if the area labelled fastest current is our fishing hole and the water rises to a level where the distinction of that hole is diminished - then the stream is not at an optimal level for fishing as the fish are not in the fishing holes.  

Goldfish example. .  Imagine placing a goldfish into a regular drinking glass filled with water.  Then take the goldfish in the drinking glass and place it into a bucket of water, a bathtub or a swimming pool.  It's going to be much easier to catch the goldfish when it's only in the drinking glass and progressively harder as you increase the amount of water around the goldfish.

Water Clarity

The Green Color is Best

Notice the Color of the River in the Background as the Perfect Green
Larry with a perfect Cowlitz River Spring Chinook King Salmon

Water clarity is also an important factor in determining whether to reschedule a fishing trip.  We are not using nets to catch these fish.  We are using fishing jigs, cured salmon eggs (roe), prawn bait, spinners and other fishing tackle which are dependent on the fish seeing and accepting your offer.  So in addition to casting in the right place - which we can talk about later - the water has to be clear enough for the fish to see what you're presenting to them without being so clear that they are spooked by seeing you or your boat in the near distance.  

It's a tough proposition.  You're in the river in a boat or in the water with your waders.  You don't want the fish to see you - but you want them to see your lure or bait.  This is why you cast so far from the boat when spinner or bobber fishing and why you pull the line out on your reel so many times when you're anchor fishing.  You want to be as far away from the fish as possible and still be able to get your presentation right in front of or near their mouths.

Another factor in water clarity is the temperature of the water.  Solvents will dissolve more readily in a water solute than a cooler one.  So if the temperature is predicted to be very low or very high on the day of your scheduled trip this will also be taken into consideration.

When the water is very low and clear you would generally use a smaller darker colored presentation and when it is cloudier or has higher turbidity then you would use a larger brighter colored presentation for them to be able to see it better.  Of course you can only make something so small and dark or big and bright and have it be effective in catching a fish while you're nearby.

Abundance of Fish

March 15th through April 20th is next Prime Window for King Salmon

If every other condition is perfect and there are only 4 fish in the river - you could catch those 4 fish and have a great day on the water.  (some of you know where we have done this and we catch every fish that comes into the river each day ) However, this is rarely the case so we like to fish when there are more than 4 fish in the river.    

We fish several different rivers at different time of year for different species of fish.  We will use the fictitious 'Abundance River' as our example.  The Abundance River has 5 runs of fish.  Winter and Summer Steelhead, Spring and Fall Chinook and Coho Salmon.  The Winter Steelhead start coming into the river around November with increasing numbers entering up until the end of January then decreasing numbers entering into April.  In this example the best time to fish would be the end of January even though the season may be from November through April.  And depending on other conditions you could have your best day of fishing in December or March.  We would generally fish this river from mid December through mid March for a run with this timing.

Here is a chart showing the passage of Adult Chinook over the Bonneville Dam for 2014, 2013 and the 10 year average.  This shows how dramatically close you can time the run and choose the best days to fish if the only factor was the Abundance of fish in the river.  You would only want to fish for Spring Chinook on May 1st and Fall Chinook on September 18th or close to those dates.  As you can see there are good numbers of fish going over the Bonneville Dam between April 10th and May 15th and between August 25th and October 11th.  So we fish downstream of the Bonneville dam near Portland between March 15th and April 20th and further downstream from August 1st through September 30th. 

We would not want to target Chinook on the Columbia River below Bonneville dam between November and February based on this chart.  And if all other conditions such as CFS, Turbidity and River traffic were poor on September 18th - you can bet we would be out there fishing though someone may look at the river traffic or CFS and determine by that number alone that fishing should be rescheduled.

Condition of Fish

Spring Chinook are the Best!

When you're fishing in the Ocean for Salmon - they are in the best condition possible.  They are living and feeding and freshly preserved to perfection in the salter waters of the Pacific Ocean.  Fish enter the rivers to spawn and usually die.  Of course the experience of fishing on a large charter boat in the Ocean is much different to a 2 person drift boat trip on the Olympic Peninsula so we are trying to get you the biggest brightest fish possible upriver in that boat.  We do also offer the Columbia River trips where the fish are just in from the ocean fresh.

When the fish are coming into the river fast - when conditions for such are perfect - then you will catch fresh fish with sea lice still attached and they are in near perfect condition.  When conditions are poor and the fish have been stuck in one hole for a while due to lack of water - then their condition is poor.  After some fish spawn they lethargically start drifting back down stream and eventually die.  The river could be loaded with fish but they could be stuck in a hole and dying or have already spawned and be going downstream.

You want strong fresh upriver bound salmon and steelhead. . 

One of the best upriver fish to catch is actually a spring chinook.  They have the longest journey to travel to get back to their spawning grounds so they have extra delicious omega 3 fatty acids which they will burn on the way to their destination.  Many of the Columbia River Spring Chinook are headed to Canada or Idaho - a long way to go.  These fish are sometimes called 'Upriver Brights' and are probably the best quality fish you will catch in the Pacific NW.  They stay in the best condition the longest while in the river.

River Traffic

Beware of the Bikini and Board Short clad bunch swimming in the fishing hole 

Photo credit:

River traffic can comprise of bank anglers, other boat fisherman and guides, recreational river users and commercial traffic.  Our biggest concerns are the first 3 in that order.  One of the advantages to fishing with a guide in a boat is that you will likely have more spots on the river which can be accessed by boat only which will be free of foot traffic.  There are times, however, when the fish are only in one hole on the river and all the boats and bank anglers are at the same spot.  

Weekends bring the biggest crowds for both bank anglers and other boat fisherman.  This is why we always recommend fishing during the week when there is less traffic.  The smaller the river the bigger this factor plays in deciding to recommend rescheduling.  There may only be 1-10 holes or slots to fish in a river and if there are 200 boats and 50 bank anglers then your chances of catching fish are very low.

Recreational river users would include inter tube floaters and kayakers in the summertime.  When the temperatures in the NW approach 80 degrees people naturally want to head to the nearest swimming hole or river and swim or go for a nice float.  On a hot busy August weekend there can be hundred of people floating down the 'Abundance River' and they could care less if they are floating over or swimming in your fishing hole.  Needless to say - fishing on a weekend in a small river when it's 90 degrees is out of the questions.  At best we can accomplish an early morning float - catch our limit and hope to be out of there before there is a bikini and board shorts clad group of teenagers swimming with the fish.

Guides Intuition

I am not a psychologist so I can only guess what factors go into whether or not a guide thinks that fishing will be good enough to take a paying customer.  Some guides don't want to take a paying customer unless all conditions are perfect.  CFS, Turbidity, Abundance of fish, Condition of fish and river traffic.  Some guides have experienced catching lots of fish in dirty water or at high CFS and are confident they can catch fish in less than perfect conditions.  Of course, we are also making these decisions 12-48 hours before a fishing trip and it can be hard to guess what the exact CFS and Turbidity are going to be between 5am and 2pm the day of your scheduled fishing trip.  

RECAP Examples

Example 1:  River is loaded with fish, it's peak season - the fish are bright and perfect for the grill.  The river is a little bit on the clear side but definitely fishable.  CFS is perfect for the boat you're scheduled for.  But. . it's going to be 90 degrees by noon and it's August.  So we know that there will be lots of recreational swimmers and the like around all of our fishing holes - and earlier than normal since the temperature will be so high so early in the day.  We would recommend waiting a week until temps cool down.

Example 2:  All river conditions are perfect.  CFS, Turbidity, River Traffic - all good.  You're booked for March 20th and the fish just have not come into the part of the river that we're fishing yet.  We would recommend rescheduling if there are absolutely no fish to be caught.  Of course they will be showing up any day - so your scheduled day could be the day - we will communicate the facts with you.  

Example 3:  It's scheduled to rain 3 inches between today and 2 days from now when your trip is scheduled for the Satsop River.  3 inches of rain in 2 days will drown out the fish in the holes and the water will be very dirty.  CFS and Turbidity are poor - even if the river is loaded with fish 3 inches of rain is a trip killer.  SPIN:  If the river is absolutely loaded with fish and it's the peak week of the run and it's going to rain 2 inches before your trip - we might suggest going anyways if your guide is confident we will catch fish.

Example 4:  Your scheduled to fish the Queets River on January 3rd.  This is an excellent date for Winter Steelhead but the water is at a high CFS and high turbidity.  The Wynoochee which is a dam controlled river will stay at a lower CFS with lower turbidity - it could be the perfect green color when the Queets is completely flooded out.  So we would suggest switching rivers in this case.

Experience is #1

We are very experienced fishing all of the river we guide on.  In addition to Casey's experience fishing and guiding, Jessica's experience weighing these above factor s day to day and educating customers - we strive to find the best fishing guides for the best fisheries during the peak seasons.

When you book a fishing trip with you are guaranteed that we have spent thousands of hours in learning and preparation for YOUR day on the water.  

Any trip that you book with us will be with a guide who is confident fishing in less than perfect conditions and we will always communicate with you in advance if the odds are stacked against you and give you the option to reschedule your fishing trip or move to a different river with better conditions.

Our goal is to match as many customers up with as many guides as possible - while ensuring the customer has the best possible time on the water and catches fish and the guide is confident and happy fishing there as well.

Check out our online availability for Fishing Trips - Book a Trip Entirely Online

Jessica is always available with any question big or small during your trip booking/decision making process.  Call or text 253.389.0359 or email