Salmon are tied more closely to early American cultures than any other fish. Similar in importance to the yearly arrival of bison for Great Plains tribes, salmon runs meant more than just food for Northwest tribes; the fish represented a harmonious balance in the world.
If salmon do act as a barometer of ecological health, then the Columbia River system is out of whack. The Columbia River of today looks nothing like the river Lewis and Clark described in their journals, and salmon populations have been decimated, first by over-harvest then by dams. Gone are the miles of rapids, the bank-devouring current and the hair-raising waterfalls. In their place sit massive reservoirs behind giant dams. The isolated landscape now looks over miles of lakes, one after another. During the time of Lewis and Clark, an estimated 16 million salmon came back to the Columbia and Snake River basins. Now, less than 1 percent of this amount returns.
Young wild fish along with hatchery-bred smolts are trucked and barged downriver and released below Bonneville Dam and returning adults have to battle fish ladders, and miles of warm, dirty water. In some instances, the fish that survive the upstream obstacle course return to extremely degraded spawning habitat.
The massive reservoirs created by dams host many species of game fish, including walleye, bass, sturgeon, and hatchery salmon and steelhead. Many people believe the next world record walleye will come out of the Columbia's depths. Good fishing also exists at the base of each dam, especially for sturgeon. A good place to hook a 700-pound sturgeon with half a herring as bait is immediately below McNary Dam, in Umatilla, Oregon.
For the traveling angler looking for a fishing hole that Silas Goodrich would have recognized, the last great spot to fish is the very terminus of the Lewis and Clark Trail; the mouth of the Columbia River. Here, the river is pinched between South Jetty and the giant hook of Cape Disappointment, and the current is tremendous. Two thousand miles of river empty right here, resulting in a tricky passage for boats.
The Corps of Discovery spent a miserable winter here. It rained non-stop, most of the crew was sick and the food supply was inconsistent. Besides some elk and dog, the crew ate anchovies, sturgeon and eulachon (which Lewis described as "superior to any fish I ever tasted"). A partial list of fish Lewis encountered that winter reads, "beside the fish of this coast and river already mentioned we have met with the following species viz. the Whale, Porpus, Skaite, flounder, Salmon, red charr, two species of Salmon trout, mountain or speckeled trout, and a species similar to…a bottlenose. The shell fish are the Clam, perrewinkle, common muscle, cocle, and a species with a circular flat shell."
This is big time fishing. This is carry-a-big-rod-or-go-home kind of fishing. Seven-foot sturgeon, 50-pound salmon and 20-pound steelhead live here, waiting to beat senseless any offering. For fish, this is the front door to their ancestral home. Salmon and steelhead gather at the mouth of the river, eager to start their journey, flush with ocean strength and yearning for fresh water. Most of the fishing here occurs from boats, but plenty of shore access exists as well.
Silas Goodrich spent four months looking into the gray waters of the Columbia mouth and the Pacific Ocean. It still rains here all winter, and the fish still live here in the multitudes. For fishermen, this is a chance to relax after 2,000 miles of fishing and commune with history. Just sit back in a beach chair, watch the sunset and wait for that same tug Silas felt.