We had never been here before, and a brushy, steep slope made river access a challenge as we made our way down an old, overgrown logging track seeking trails to the water’s edge. The river plunged through a deep canyon to our left, and our every attempt to reach the waterway ended at the edge of cliffs a full hundred feet above our goal. An ominously steep grassy meadow adorned with a makeshift cross memorial sloped down to the abrupt drop off, and I thought of a child losing his footing. However, “No Diving” signs appeared about the same time and macho young males diving from the cliffs into the punchbowl below quickly replaced the child of my concerns.
As we returned back to the main track, a fisherman appeared up ahead, coming up the old road from the downhill slope to the river. At six in the morning, he was the only other soul on the river, and two large salmon dangled from each of his hands. An obvious local steeped in the ways of “the Hood,” the long haired guy jokingly ducked out of sight as if to hide his good luck catches of the early morning light. Hardened fishermen have a non-disclosure tendency when it comes to secret fishing holes and successful techniques, and he wished to avoid attention.
Following his new found passion, my son Josh had recruited me for this break of dawn pursuit. Armed with a degree in biology and time spent at Hogg’s Jo/Mar Hardcore Tackle Shop across the street from his home, Josh was well equipped to pursue the salmonids that call the northwest rivers their home.
As the fellow fisherman returned to the road and continued his homeward trek past us, I laughed and admired his catches, prodding him about the river’s secrets. “Can we access the river somewhere off the edge along here?” I queried. “Oh sure,” he replied, “If you want to pay a ten thousand dollar fine.” This sounded far fetched to us at the time, but we later learned a fifty thousand dollar fine could be rendered just for catching and keeping an endangered bull trout.
“Oh, we know there is a “no fishing” boundary line somewhere just below the falls down there,” I responded. This waterfall poured into the punchbowl, which was protected from fishing along with everything else upstream. As he trudged off with his two fine catches of the day, he softened up and turned back to us. “Just keep going ‘til this road ends, then take a trail the left. It will take you straight down to the river.” Though some fishermen play games with lack of advice or blatant misinformation, this fellow was obviously sincere, and, sure enough, we made our way down to a gravel bar buffering a perfect salmon hole.
What a magical spot! Just below the punchbowl and its waterfalls, the gravel bar was at the apex of the East and West forks of the Hood River. The East fork on our right rushed down in an impassible torrent, crashing into the gentle West fork that backed up into the deep and wide salmon rest stop. After this confluence, the main fork rushed onwards to its meeting with the Columbia.
On its approach to the punchbowl, the west fork funnels through a long, narrow chute lined with vertical cliffs a hundred feet in height. The cliffs widen out into a giant bowl as the torrent spills over a rock ledge and into the natural amphitheater carved into the basalt cliffs of the gorge. Opposite the main falls, another beautifully plumed waterfall cascades into the bowl from a greater height, originating from a smaller side creek. This powerful sanctuary of nature has been revered by Native Americans for its bounty of teeming salmon since its discovery by the earliest of peoples.
Those admirable “fish in the hands” of the lucky fellow passing by were spring run chinook salmon, or “Springers”, and along with the summer steelhead moving through these waters, were the main target of our fishing endeavor. Swimming from the ocean into the rivers to spawn in the fall is the natural cycle of the salmon, but some chinooks hold out to feed in the ocean for an extra four or five months and complete their river migration in the spring and early summer. These Springers are highly sought after by those in the know and salmon connoisseurs, for these fish are extra rich and oily due to their extended feeding. I have been fortunate enough to have these fish, and when lightly grilled within hours of being caught, it is an experience worthy of any gourmet’s bucket list.
But as it turned out, not this time, and we left the river empty handed. Josh lamented that we missed the break of dawn and the best window for success, which our passerby had met, while we were an hour later [although we were on another section of the main stem at dawn}. Still, such an outdoor experience is not without merit; there is the excitement of the chase along with the peaceful therapy of being immersed in magnificent riverside nature settings, and I received an unexpected reward shortly afterwards.
In an amazing coincidence, a flyer landed in my mail box the day after our fishing adventure with a banner proclaiming “We Did It!” It was from Western Rivers Conservancy, a progressive organization that works to protect rivers of the American West while keeping them in the public domain. The full color photo on the polished brochure was of the exact spot we had been fishing! The confluence of the East and West Fork Hood River! And the headline proclaimed that WRC had successfully deeded the surrounding land to the county park system, including the entire punchbowl falls area.
WRC has worked ardently to protect some of the most terrific stretches of wilderness waters in the west, and I have given them my full support ever since being involved in a fund raising event with salmon art works [see photo].
Where on Earth?! Hood River, Oregon. The river called “The Hood” is fed by glaciers and snow melt of that monolith of the Cascade Mountains, and Oregon’s highest peak, Mt. Hood.