PORTLAND — A strangely calm and windless morning transforms the top of the Willamette River into a flat, glassy canvas that reflects the Rose City’s Sellwood Bridge just as high-slack tide stills the current.
It’s one of those rare Portland mornings when winter takes a backseat to solemn sun for the five men in John Shmilenko’s powerboat, their fishing lines slicing through the surface uninterrupted by spring chinook salmon over the past four hours.
“Patience, persistence and positive attitude,” says Shmilenko, the “Sultan of Sellwood” and one of the colorful characters of Willamette fishing lore. “That will work for us.”
Seconds later the Sultan’s prognostication starts Richard Odell’s rod tip twitching, and soon Odell is doing battle with a 16-pound spring chinook, one of those early-run denizens that make even fishing amid a gale worth the trouble.
Anglers like Shmilenko are in the midst of the early-run part of the Willamette spring chinook run.
A rarity in Oregon rivers, “springers” as they are known, enter rivers such as the Columbia early in the calendar year to head upstream into spawning grounds before those water become uncomfortably warm.
Over the millennia, they have developed larger than normal fat reserves to sustain their long stint in freshwater, making them great on the rod as well as the dinner table.
The best of the best, however, are the early ones now gracing the tidewater at Sellwood.
“It’s the pilot fish I’m after — the early spring chinook, the ones the Indians used to look for. The ones that show the way upstream for the rest of the run,” says Shmilenko, who fishes virtually every day during the spring chinook run, usually within sight of his Sellwood condo.
Early-run Willamette springers hold off ledges in places like Sellwood as they trudge upstream to Willamette Falls at Oregon City and then beyond to spawning grounds in the Upper Willamette, the Santiam and McKenzie rivers.
Anglers slowly troll baits like cut-plug herring and prawns dyed red or orange, each hooked to spin in the water as 2- to 3-ounce lead weights are used to bounce them off the bottom to coax one of these resting chinook to bite.
“Even though there’s more fish in the river in May, I’d rather be fishing now,” Shmilenko says. “These fish seem to be more aggressive. They bite.”
The Sultan is one of their ardent disciples.
He grew up a steelheader, but the lure of early springers drew him to Sellwood in 1985, when the Willamette fleet was a tight-lipped crew that didn’t share fishing secrets much with each other — let alone newcomers.
He caught his first springer April 3, 1988, his second a day later. Each fish almost defines him. Even his email address is springchinook@.
Even after three decades of chinook fishing, each early springer is just as intoxicating as the first.
“The tug’s the drug,” Shmilenko says.
In 1999, Shmilenko virtually OD’d on springers, boating 100 for him and his buddies before calling it a year.
“I promised my wife I’d stop at 100, so I did,” he says. “I could have easily caught more.”
About 60 springers is an average year, though recent years have seen more like 30, he says. The springer run is dominated by 3-year-old fish averaging around 16 pounds, with those in the low 20s considered big.
Unlike the Rogue’s springer run, the Willamette run is dominated by hatchery fish with their clipped adipose fins.
Shmilenko figures about one in five of the chinook he boats are natives that are released unharmed.
“Any fish is a great fish, as long as there’s no fin,” he says.
High-slack tides are his favorites. He builds his day, including work in real estate, around them.
Shmilenko keeps meticulous logs about the fish he catches, what baits worked, what the tides were. He also is vigilant about his gear and baits, always tinkering with the prawn or herring so it swims with just the right spin.
“If you have the perfect spin and sharp hooks, and the water’s clearing and dropping, you just sense that you’re going to get one,” Shmilenko says. “It creates confidence.”
To get there, he follows the Sultan’s mantra: Patience, persistence and positive attitude.
“You have to believe in the three Ps,” Shmilenko says. “If not, this will drive you friggin’ nuts.”