BREWSTER, Wash. – Salmon snobs are not among the parade of boats trolling the shoreline near this orchard town this month. Salmon-fishing jocks would be in the main Columbia River channel, dragging the bottom for kings.
But the flotilla of anglers concentrated near the mouth of the Okanogan River clearly prefer accessibility and abundance over size and stature, targeting the sockeye that are migrating up the Columbia in the biggest numbers since record keeping began in 1938.
Sockeye are so abundant in the upper Columbia that the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife on Friday raised the daily limit from four to six. Limits, or near-limits, of the 2- to 4-pound fish were the rule Saturday, when more than 100 boats slowly cruised the shoreline.
While seasoned sockeye stalkers were watching the fish counts on the lower river and predicting the best of the fishing was still a week or two away, first-timers like Coeur d’Alene’s Jay Clark were plenty happy with the action.
“It’s fantastic fishing!” said Clark, part of a trio that landed 10 sockeye Saturday morning. They were heading out again Saturday evening, hoping to finish off their limits with eight more fish.
More than half a million sockeye are heading up the Columbia this year. In Eastern Washington, a handful will head up the Snake and Yakima rivers, where they’re protected. Tens of thousands will peel into the Wenatchee River to reach Lake Wenatchee – more than enough to support a season for the sixth time in seven years. The WDFW has set the Lake Wenatchee season to start on Saturday.
But the vast majority will head up the Okanogan River to spawning areas in British Columbia.
Although the thermal barrier wasn’t fully in place last weekend, many sockeye appeared to be parked in the Columbia at Brewster. Fishery biologists say some sockeye have been continuing up the Okanogan, but when the snowmelt subsides and the Okanogan’s temperatures warm to 22 degrees Celsius (as measured at the United States Geological Survey Malott gauge) sockeye stack up in bigger numbers near the river’s confluence with the Columbia.
When the Okanogan cools, they’ll head upstream and fishing at Brewster will go slack until more fish arrive. Many fishermen will follow the sockeye upstream to the U.S. portion of Lake Osoyoos, 70 miles up the Okanogan.
Habitat work and fish passage projects – along with better management of stream flows, favorable ocean conditions and selective use of hatcheries – are responsible for a dramatic boom in the Okanogan River sockeye.
In the 1990s, an average of 17,000 sockeye a year climbed the fish ladder at Wells Dam, the last Columbia River dam before the Okanogan.
In the 2000s, that improved to an average of 65,000. So far this decade, the count at Wells has averaged 215,000 a year, not including the record run that’s now in progress.
About 500,000 sockeye already have climbed over Bonneville Dam this year, with 100,000 already upstream over Wells Dam, where they’re still coming at the rate of about 35,000 a day.
That means money for Brewster, population 2,300. The town park is packed with RVs, right up to the chain-link fence surrounding the city pool. Rigs towing boats line up in the McDonald’s drive-through.
“We couldn’t clean the restrooms and stock the shelves if the fishing wasn’t so good. As it is, we can’t even get away from the cash register,” said the clerk at the Exxon Food Mart, where a section of wall is dedicated to red Gamakatsu hooks, herring dodgers, plastic squid and (for the chinook fishermen) Brad’s Super Baits.
There’s nothing complicated about fishing for sockeye. Don’t have a $60,000 Duckworth? The powerboat you use at Badger Lake is fine at Brewster. No downriggers? Use a diver or 4 ounces of lead. No fish finder? Follow the other boats and you’ll find fish.
The toughest challenge may be landing a place to stay. The park’s RV sites are mostly reserved through Aug. 31, when the sockeye season is set to end. (The season will continue through Oct. 15 for waters above Highway 173.) Some anglers are anchoring and sleeping in their boats.
Chris and Tianii Costlow of Odessa, Wash., solve the problem by parking their pickup camper on the shoulder of Seventh Street, along Brewster’s waterfront. They’ve got plenty of company.
Like other fishermen, the Costlows anchor their boat in a cove just off the boat launch, tying the bow line to the exposed roots of shoreline weeping willows. The boat is a Lund they bought for their 30th wedding anniversary.
“I asked her what she wanted and she said a bigger boat,” Chris Costlow said. “I didn’t hesitate to go find one.”
The Costlows fished Brewster on July 4 this year and were surprised to find just a few boats on the water. Their fish finder soon told the story. With water temperatures low in the Okanogan River, the sockeye weren’t pausing in the Columbia.
Eight days later with air temperatures hitting triple digits, the couple returned and came one fish shy of their combined limit during a morning of fishing. Tianii Costlow is hoping for still better fishing, like they found in 2012 when more than 300,000 sockeye came through Brewster.
“You could hardly get your poles in the water before they were biting,” she recalled. “That’s what I want to see again.”