Sport fishing in the Columbia River and its tributaries has been popular since the era of the first Euro-American settlement of the Northwest. In 1877, a U.S. Army lieutenant known today only as N. Abercrombie wrote about fishing for trout at Havermale Island on the Spokane River, a place immediately upstream from Spokane Falls in the center of modern-day downtown Spokane: “Caught 400 (cutthroat) trout, weighing two to five pounds apiece. As fast as we dropped in a hook baited with a grasshopper, we would catch a big trout. In fact, the greatest part of the work was catching the grasshopper.”
In 1888, author Rudyard Kipling fished for salmon in the Clackamas River, a tributary of Oregon’s Willamette River, itself a major tributary of the Columbia. Writing to the Civil and Military Gazette of Lahore, India, after he and a friend caught 16 salmon in six hours, Kipling gushed: “I have lived! The American continent may now sink under the sea, for I have taken the best that it yields, and the best was neither dollars, love nor real estate. . . .I question whether the stealthy theft of line [by] an able-bodied Columbia salmon who knows exactly what you are doing and why you are doing it is not sweeter than any other victory within human scope.”
Salmon fishing was a popular pastime in northeastern Oregon in the late 1800s, some 500 miles and more inland from the ocean. Sockeye, also known as redfish for the deep red color of their flesh and for their striking red sides when they are ready to spawn, were particularly popular among recreational anglers. On July 22, 1898, the Wallowa County Chieftain newspaper of Enterprise, Oregon, reported, anticipating the fish that soon would arrive on their way to spawn in the tributary creeks of Wallowa Lake: “We have heard quite a number of red fish have been seen and caught in the river in lower valley and the canyon” And a week later, on the 29th, the paper followed up:
“Reports had been received from the lower valley that the red fish were coming up the river, but none had been seen near town until last Monday, when some of the boys caught five or six. Everybody who can find a few spare hours has been out this week with a jig, eagerly watching on the bank of the river.”
As far inland as salmon could migrate, they provided food and recreation for fishers, even to the desert of northern Nevada. A small portion of northern Nevada is in the Columbia River Basin, at the headwaters of the Owyhee River, a Snake tributary. According to the May 22, 1900, edition of the Tuscarora Times-Review, Tuscarora, Nevada: “Ed Johnson, Frank Bowen and Neil Snyder caught the first salmon of the season last Sunday on Hot Creek.” However, in northern Nevada, as in other upper-Columbia Basin tributaries, unrelenting commercial fishing downriver appeared to be taking its toll on the fish, as did dams. The newspaper commented: “These fish used to ascend the creeks around here in swarms, but the cannery traps and dams between here and the ocean have almost completely stopped the runs, and a salmon now is almost a curiosity.”
At that time, around the turn of the 20th century, recreational fishers blamed commercial fisheries for stealing the salmon that sport fishers used to catch. Hatcheries also were seen as the enemy because they produced fish for the commercial fisheries. On July 31, 1902, the Wallowa County Chieftain reported that it was simply unfair that Oregon’s brand new salmon hatchery, located on the Grand Ronde River about 50 miles north of Enterprise, would be operated in a way that would deny fishing opportunities at some times of the year to people who lived farther upriver. In an interview W.S. Burleigh of the Oregon Fish Commission said the state had decided to capture all of the Chinook and sockeye that passed the hatchery in July in order to secure broodstock for the next generation of fish. Racks were positioned in the river, and only the smallest salmon could pass the narrow spaces between the slats. Burliegh reported that as a result, “the river is literally alive with large Chinook salmon weighing from 10 to 40 pounds [and] for a mile or more below the racks numerous big, gamey trout are unable to force a passage through the impregnable breastworks erected by man.”
The newspaper cried foul:
“It seems very unfair that the people of Wallowa County are to be denied the privilege of catching any salmon whatever, by reason of the supply being shut off by the hatchery, yet it is only an example of how the small fish are swallowed by the larger. Wallowa County, which was formerly noted for its piscatory paradise will be no longer the retreat of the ambitions of the angler and sportsman because the Columbia River multimillionaire cannerymen have obtained class legislation in the interest of the fish trust and to the absolute extermination of the finny tribes that once so numerously infected the Wallowa streams, which nature had so bounteously provided for the benefit of our people. The trust has willed it so, and we can do naught but submit.”
Over time, recreational salmon-fishing opportunities in the Columbia River declined with the decline of the salmon runs. 1978 was the last year that sport fishing for wild salmon was allowed in Idaho, for example, as the Snake River runs declined. But at the same time, the popularity of fishing for other species elsewhere in the Columbia system, including sea-run cutthroat trout, the anadromous form of freshwater cutthroat, in the lower river and introduced species such as walleye, bass, and shad, increased.
In the lower Columbia River mainstem there are two designated zones for recreational fishing, one between Bonneville Dam and the Astoria-Megler Bridge and one between the bridge and Buoy 10, the last navigational buoy before the open ocean. Recreational fisheries in these areas primarily are for salmon and steelhead, but there also are designated fishing seasons for sturgeon and shad. Idaho, Oregon, and Washington state fish and wildlife agencies report on recreational salmon fishing on their websites (external links above).