Fishing in front of Willamette Falls. Photo by Gary Lewis.
A person can learn a lot about the history of our state in the spray at Willamette Falls.
Here, the Clackamas peoples and the Wasco, Warm Springs, Multnomah, Yakama, Molalla, Tualatin and other tribes fished and traded for salmon and lamprey.
Above the falls, on the east bank, was a village called Canemah. Downstream, opposite the mouth of the Clackamas, stood an Indian town called Walamt (sounds like).
The Chief Factor of the Hudson’s Bay Company built the first sawmill in 1829. In the 1840s and 1850s when the migration to Oregon was in full swing, all roads led to Willamette Falls.
My favorite way to study history is with a fishing rod in hand. As a kid, I’d bring my school books home in a bag and leave them there while I fly-fished for trout in small streams that bled into the Columbia.
That’s why I pulled home-schooled 12-year-old Gus Smith away from his studies last week to make the run to Oregon City. We parked the Ford at the Pow Wow Tree, to run our fingers in the moss and bark of a 270-year-old bigleaf maple then checked in at the Best Western Rivershore Hotel near Clackamette Park.
In the morning, we met up with Sam Pyke for a cup of coffee, drove up to the old townsite of Canemah then trotted out on the dock to meet Rob Crandall and 11-year-old Tanner.
Overhead, on I-205, commuters had conspired to spread a traffic jam betwixt Vancouver and Tualatin. We passed beneath the George Abernethy bridge then went under the Oregon City bridge and could see the falls ahead. Salmon fishermen trolled for late spring chinooks and shad anglers were anchored in various runs.
American shad were introduced to the American west in 1871 when fish were released in major rivers up and down the Pacific coast. Today millions of shad still return to the Sacramento, the Umpqua, the Siuslaw, the Columbia, Willamette and other rivers. Plankton eaters, the American shad is the biggest of the herring species and averages three to five pounds. They bite and fight with abandon.
Rob Crandall targets shad with a fly rod. His favorite setup is a 5-weight equipped with a 12- to 15-foot sink tip, a 30-inch Maxima leader and a pink, orange or chartreuse shad dart.
When we had three anchors overboard to hold the boat in the heavy current, Crandall made a short cast to demonstrate to Gus how to present the fly. A moment later, a shad grabbed, ripped ten feet of line off the reel and broke the surface in a gill-rattling tail-walk.
For the first half hour, we hooked fish on every third cast, trading places with the fly rods and the net. Gus hooked one that pulled harder than the rest – a sturgeon. When the line went slack, the 12-year-old held his hands four feet apart to show how long it was.
At the other end of the boat, my casting zone wasn’t as productive as the spot where Gus and Tanner were fishing, so I pulled out my secret weapon, a bottle of Pro-Cure Fish Oil Garlic Plus. Dribbling water soluble goodness on the shad dart earned me a fish the first cast each time I freshened the scent.
No one counted, but we must have brought 25 or 30 to hand in three hours. Sam Pyke and I fought two fish to the net at one time and Tanner netted them.
Shad hit the Columbia system in May and run up to Bonneville and beyond. In the Willamette River the good fishing starts when the spring run-off subsides. Fishermen start to pick them up in May and can have 50-fish days in June. The action continues into mid-July.
The falls on the Willamette are 24-1/2 miles up from the confluence with the Columbia. It is still a gathering place and is the most significant historical natural feature in the West.
Gary Lewis is the host of Frontier Unlimited TV and author of Fishing Central Oregon, Fishing Mount Hood Country, Hunting Oregon and other titles. Contact Gary at www.GaryLewisOutdoors.com.