Spring chinook salmon fishing is the hottest game on the Columbia and many of its tributaries.
While anglers face short ocean salmon fishing seasons off the Washington coast this summer, and Oregon anglers are looking at disaster, a bumper crop of chrome-bright spring chinooks is parading up the Columbia.
About 1,500 sport fishing boats were counted in an aerial survey of the I-5 bridge downstream from Bonneville Dam two weeks ago. That season in the river below Bonneville Dam ended on Monday as the fish piled in and were climbing over the dam and dispersing upriver.
Spring chinook fishing currently is open on the Columbia and some tributaries, including the Wind River, from Bonneville Dam all the way upstream to McNary Dam until May 10. The spring chinook seasons are always subject to early closure if angling is found to be impacting endangered wild salmon.
The season was opened Tuesday on the Snake River from the mouth area almost to Ice Harbor Dam followed by the Thursday opening of the Snake from Texas Rapids Boat Launch upstream about 7 miles to the boat launch a mile upstream of Little Goose Dam.
In Idaho, hatchery chinook fishing opened Saturday on portions of the Snake, Clearwater, Salmon and Little Salmon rivers.
Others seasons officially set so far include:
•Ringold Area of the Columbia bank fishery, opening May 1.
•Wind River, lower stretch currently is open with the river upstream from Shipherd Falls opening May 1.
•Yakima River, two stretches, opening May 1.
•Lochsa River in Idaho, opening May 24.
Still to come are announcements on whether fishing be allowed in the Wenatchee River area, on Idaho’s South Fork Salmon and possibly a mid-June season for the first time in 31 years on the upper Salmon.
Check Idaho and Washington fishing regulations for specific fishing areas and restrictions.
The Columbia’s total run is estimated at 269,300 springers, the third-largest run since 1977. A big portion – 145,400 fish – is headed for the Snake River, and another slug of 23,300 fish is likely going to the Upper Columbia River above Priest Rapids Dam, said Cindy LeFleur, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife Columbia River policy coordinator.
About 100,000 of the fish should make it over Lower Granite, the last Snake River dam they encounter before entering Idaho and heading for the Clearwater and farther up the Snake.
Early this week, nearly 20,000 spring chinook had moved over Bonneville Dam at the rate of about 2,600 a day while the salmon were just barely trickling over Lower Granite nearly 300 miles upstream.
An average springer is about 15 pounds, but plenty of 30-pound fish nose up the river every spring.
Spring chinook are hard fighters and the best-eating salmon of the year.
“Springers are the primo fish,” LeFleur said. “They come into the river in March, but they don’t spawn until September, so they’re full of that good juice that helps them survive for months.”
Biologists don’t want hatchery springers interbreeding with wild springers, so anglers shouldn’t feel guilty about keeping a fin-clipped fish for the barbecue.
Studies have shown that interbreeding with hatchery fish dilutes the traits that wild salmon need to survive.
The fishing will keep getting better during the next few weeks. Anglers new to springer fishing should consider hiring a guide for a day to learn the special techniques to fish the big river safely and successfully.
The Yakima River will get its first season since 2004, with expected returns of 10,060 spring chinook, and nearly half of them are predicted to be hatchery fish.
Even anglers fishing for smallmouth bass must conform to special rules, such as single barbless hooks and night-fishing restrictions, during the Yakima’s spring chinook season, which could last through May 31.
The stretches of the Yakima River set to open are:
•Lower reach, from the Interstate 182 bridge in Richland upstream to the SR 224 bridge at Benton City.
•Middle reach, from the Interstate 82 bridge at Union Gap upstream to the boundary markers 3,500 feet downstream of Roza Dam.
This season is the first time spring chinook fishing will be allowed in the lower Yakima portion of the river that runs upstream from Richland, Fish and Wildlife officials say.
Three new boat launches have been built in the past five years on the river in Benton County and launches have been improved in Benton City and Horn Rapids County Park.
A brief season allowed in 2000 provided the Yakima River’s first legal spring chinook fishing in more than four decades. Seasons also were authorized in 2001, 2002 and 2004.
The biggest uncertainty anglers face this year is the weather.
“If we get some hot weather, the snowmelt will blow us out of the water,” said John Easterbrooks, WDFW regional fisheries manager in Yakima.