Wind screams down the Columbia River Gorge with astonishing power. A tug pushes barges loaded with grain or sawed wood through ample waves to destinations upriver.
White caps on this large river are reminiscent of the ocean just before a storm, certainly nothing to challenge, but people constantly do. Windsurfing was invented here and travelers from around the globe try their skills.
The Columbia River is 1,243 miles long and flows northwest and then south into the state of Washington, then turns west to form most of the border between Washington and Oregon before emptying into the Pacific Ocean.
The Columbia River Gorge, designated as America’s first and only National Scenic Area, is an 80-mile-long canyon carved out of the Cascade Mountain Range by the Columbia and is filled with cliffs up to 4,000 feet high, countless waterfalls, rock pillars and smaller canyons. Lewis and Clark explored and wrote of this beauty more than 200 years ago.
Many Native American tribes moved into this area plentiful with fish and game. A few tribes centered their society on fishing and this group prospered until their angling rights were challenged by commercial fishermen.
Rights of Native Americans to fish along the Columbia became the central issue of contention with the states, commercial fishers and private property owners in recent years. The U.S. Supreme Court upheld fishing rights in landmark cases in 1905, 1918 and 1974. Fish were central to the culture of the region's natives, both as sustenance and as part of their religious beliefs.
The region has been used for fishing and trading around 11,000 years. Natives drew fish from the Columbia at several major sites, such as Celilo Falls. Located east of the modern city of The Dalles, Celilo Falls was a vital hub for trade and the interaction of different cultural groups.
Today, anglers fish for trout, salmon and sturgeon with stout equipment. Fish tend to be big and full of fight. This may be one of America’s greatest challenges for fly fishing.
“My family fished the rivers here for generations,” said Morgan Dudley, of Stevenson, Washington. “We fly fish by stripping streamers for salmon or big trout. The water is generally cold and we use heavy waders.”
Stripping a streamer is a trick occasionally used on Midwestern trout by simply pulling fly line through the rod in different speeds and patterns. For example, steadily pulling the streamer once before pausing is the most common tactic. Some use a jerk, jerk, jerk motion to make the fly appear to be a wounded baitfish. This is basically the same motions used when bass fishing jerk baits.
“We love to eat these fish,” Dudley said. “We either smoke and can our salmon, or fry the meat when we plan to have a fish fry. My uncle Morgan Lindsay recently caught a 61-pound chinook salmon.”
Dudley and his family also fish for sturgeon and catfish off the river bottom. Plus, they have a bonus fish that few may realize is there – the smallmouth bass.
“You would be surprised how many smallmouth bass we have here,” Dudley said. “We occasionally catch some really nice fish.”
The Columbia River is loaded with plenty of forage, mainly clouds of shad. Anglers use lures or flies that imitate wounded shad to resemble easy meals for bass. Smallmouth bass are especially active when gorging for winter, providing hot action with bass from small to 7 pounds. Three- to 5-pounders are common in certain areas.
There, too, are plenty of whitetail deer in this area. Hunters scan the mountains and lowlands for sign of a good buck. Waterfowl seem plentiful, providing more hunting opportunities.
Amazing scenery: Many visit this region to see the Cascade Mountains. The peaks outline the Columbia creating, magnificent rock facings occasionally covered with conifers and a healthy mix of aspens with leaves that turn bright yellow in the fall.
We drove through the Mount Hood National Forest, about 62 miles east of Portland, Oregon. The Forest extends south from the Columbia River Gorge across more than 60 miles of forested mountains, lakes and streams. Roads framed by huge pine trees that block out the sun make gentle turns in a well-built road to the top of several mountains. The end result was observing the winding Columbia River Basin from a nearby mountain top, an amazing scene.
Several waterfalls bring even more beauty to this inspiring region, especially Multnomah Falls, where travelers in the 1880s took steamboat excursions up the Columbia to view this amazing scene of water dropping some 600 feet.
Toward the end of our trip, we stopped at a small family-owned diner in Stevenson, Washington, called Big T’s Grill. The people couldn’t have been nicer, and we dined on waffles covered with strawberries and a side of thick, smoked bacon – the best we ever ate. We had fancy meals on this trip, but this was by far the best.
Our jet passed over the Cascade Mountains on our departure from Portland, about 45 minutes from our Washington accommodations in the beautiful Skamania Lodge. Conifer-covered mountains bordering twisting ribbons of river were still breathtaking when observed from 30,000 feet.
Soon the area will be filled with skiers and windsurfers that somehow move between 60-70 mph over snow fields. They can have all of that, I just want to fish.
– Kenneth Kieser, a veteran outdoors writer and member of the Waterfowlers Hall of Fame and National Fresh Water Fishing Hall of Fame, writes a weekly outdoors column for The Examiner. Reach him at email@example.com.