At Drano Lake, salmon fever is taking hold as the Columbia River's chinook run reaches its spring peak. Each year, the lake briefly transforms into one of the state's hottest — and often most congested — spots for freshwater salmon fishing.
DRANO LAKE, Skamania County — Kim Murphy reached back over his head, and cast a line with an orange Wiggle Wart, an ungainly, buglike lure, into the blue-green waters.
The line peeled out as a 10-pound spring chinook struck, taking run after run before Murphy finally pulled the fish ashore.
“It’s addictive. The way they hit your pole,” Murphy said. “They really slam it and try to pull it out of your hand.”
Murphy is a dedicated bank angler who each year drives more than 200 miles from his home in La Grande, Ore. to this lake that each spring briefly transforms into one of the state’s hottest — and often most congested — spots for freshwater salmon fishing.
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When the fish first arrive, Drano draws dozens of bank fishermen and boaters who focus much of their efforts on a small swath of this lake, which sits near its confluence with the Columbia River upstream from the Bonneville Dam.
In years past, their constant skirmishes for a place to drop their lines gave new meaning to the term “combat fishing.”
Even today, with the bankers benefiting from a special area where the boaters are prohibited, tensions still flare. Last week, one man fishing from the shoreline thought a boater was coming too close. So he threw his spinner at the offender, who retaliated by cutting off the lure and weight.
The Drano Lake salmon fever takes hold as the Columbia River’s chinook run reaches its spring peak. This year’s run has arrived much later than normal, and may end up being the latest on record.
Last week, fish counts over the Bonneville Dam finally soared. Murphy on Tuesday pulled in his limit of two salmon by afternoon, then headed home to La Grande to savor a dinner of grilled spring chinook, which are revered for their oil-rich flavor.
Most of the Columbia River spring chinook swim past Drano Lake en route to upstream areas. Some 9,500 of these salmon this year are expected to make a shorter swim, jogging into Drano, then — if not caught — returning to nearby Little White Salmon National Fish Hatchery.
Salmon stop feeding in freshwater, and can be finicky about taking a swipe at a lure or piece of bait. At Drano Lake, fish tend to get landed in brief pulses, followed by long quiet hours.
The most popular bank area is a narrow strip of rocky beach near the confluence with the Columbia River.
On a crowded day, even those who arrive at dawn may find that bank area already filled with anglers who arrived while it was still dark.
Before 2009, the bankers had another problem. The water near the shore would be filled with boaters, and that made it tough to cast without tying up lines.
The bankers wanted the boaters to back off. They threw out their lines, banging the boats with lead, and hooking some with Wiggle Warts.
One bank fisherman came up with another tactic to harass the boaters. He outfitted some of his weights with razor-sharp edges. Anyone who cast those weights could drag them across boaters’ lines, and quickly sever them.
“They cut off one boat’s line six times, and it still came back through here,” recalls Dennis Evans, of Toppenish, who first fished Drano back in 1950.
Boaters did not take this quietly.
Some came ashore, ready for fistfights. Another drew his gun, aimed it toward the shore, but never fired, according to a fisherman who said he witnessed the incident.
The Skamania County deputies repeatedly got called to the scene.
“Usually, it was, ‘Hey, you better get down here before things get really bad.’ And then when you got down, nobody knows what had happened,” said Dave Cox, Skamania County’s undersheriff.
Finally, in 2009, a truce was brokered, with the state Department of Fish and Wildlife creating a no-boat fishing zone — marked by a boundary line that runs between a sign on shore and the pillar of a bridge that runs across the lake’s mouth.
Since then, Drano Lake has become considerably calmer. Boaters who stray over the line risk not only the bankers’ wrath but a ticket and fine from the state Department of Fish and Wildlife.
“You know, the fault was on both sides,” said Bill Moore, a boater from Walla Walla, as he came ashore to clean a 10-pound salmon. “This has improved things quite a bit. It’s not what the boaters like, but I guess it’s a fair shake.”
Yakama Nation spot
Those on the banks and boats share the Drano Lake resource with tribal fishermen.
Long before Bonneville Dam backed up the water to create the modern-day lake, the shoreline was the site of a Yakama village, which was noted by Meriwether Lewis and William Clark during their voyage down the Columbia in 1805.
When the spring chinook arrive in the lake, time is set aside during the middle of the week for tribal gill-netters to catch the salmon, and no sport fishing is allowed on Wednesdays. Last year, the Yakama Nation built a series of platforms that could be used for fishing with hoop net or hook and line.
A Yakama Nation statement says that scaffolds are part of the exercise of tribal treaty rights to fish at “all usual and accustomed areas.” The tribe voluntarily refrains from using the platforms during the crowded sport-fishing days of Friday, Saturday and Sunday.
“Drano Lake was traditionally a pond and village site we refer to as ‘skalxlmax,’ which means eating place,” said Virgil Lewis, chairman of the Yakama Nation’s Fish and Wildlife Committee.
One platform, in particular, riled the bankers. It was built over a rocky outcropping near the end of the cobble-rock beach, and offered one of the best perches for casting into the channel.
Earlier this spring, that platform disappeared. It’s unclear how it happened. It was not removed, or directed to be moved by the Yakamas, according to a tribal statement.
Amid the passions stirred by this fishery, veteran Drano bank fishermen have a kind of informal code of conduct.
They pick up trash they find on the shoreline. They only move into a spot if there is room to cast without messing up the fishermen next to them.
And they try to look after each other.
Chuck Winkler, a 76-year-old from Bingen, Klickitat County, has a hard time standing for hours on end. So when he arrived on the bank last week, another angler quickly ceded his spot beside a small rock that Winkler could lean against.
Winkler fished from that spot for two days, and finally caught a salmon.
Many share their bounty with others.
Two years ago, Mick O’Malley, of Lyle, Klickitat County, caught a personal-best 95 salmon during the season at Drano and other bank spots, a catch he distributed to other families.
O’Malley is a 71-year-old Vietnam veteran who got shot through his neck, a wound that resulted in a chaplain performing the last rites.
After retiring from a career with the Internal Revenue Service, he now has time to focus on fishing.
O’Malley once bought a boat to pursue his passion, but then decided he didn’t want to miss out on the camaraderie that he found along the bank. After two years, he sold the boat without ever once putting in the water.
“I found I didn’t need it. I can catch a lot of fish right here,” O’Malley said at the end of a Drano Lake day that yielded a 12-pound spring chinook.
Hal Bernton: 206-464-2581 or email@example.com