Spring chinook salmon are poised for a repeat of 2001, the recent high-water mark for salmon fishing in Idaho.
Fisheries managers in Idaho are predicting a return of 180,000 spring chinook above Lower Granite Dam, 35 miles west of Lewiston. Of that, about 25,000 will be wild chinook.
But the run, as currently forecast, will be lopsided, with a large majority of hatchery fish returning to the Salmon River basin and to Hells Canyon.
Ed Schriever, chief of the fisheries bureau of the Idaho Department of Fish and Game at Boise, said 140,000 chinook headed for the Salmon River and Hells Canyon are expected to return and 70,000 of those could be bound for the Rapid River Hatchery near Riggins. That is nearly one-half of the projected return of hatchery chinook.
About 15,000 chinook are projected to return to the Clearwater River.
“People should remember, in 2001 the sport fishery harvested over 20,000 fish in the Clearwater,” he said. “The Clearwater will not be as good as it was in 2001 based on the forecast we have today. It’s still going to be good. It is going to be better than it was the last couple of years.”
For perspective, Schriever said the 2010 return of chinook to the Clearwater River will be about three times what it was last year. But it will pale in comparison to the number of fish returning to the Lower Salmon River and to Hells Canyon.
This Idaho bonanza stems from the December predictions that a huge return of 470,000 upriver spring chinook (compared with 169,300 last year) will be coming back to the Columbia River. Washington and Oregon fish managers say this could be the biggest run since 1938. The largest recent return was 437,900 in 2001.
Spring chinook returns to many tributaries above and below Bonneville Dam are also expected to be much better this spring.
Many fishery managers are cautious due to the unpredictable recent spring chinook returns. The 470,000 fish is just an assessment of the most reasonable prediction based on data currently available.
But if it all pans out that the huge numbers of fish return to Idaho waters, there’s more good news: Fishing conditions are likely to be excellent.
Snowpacks in the Clearwater and Salmon river basins are well below average and that could likely lead to a short and below- average high-water season. High water and the debris and mud it carries can make salmon fishing difficult.
Anglers saw similar conditions in 2001, which also was preceded by an exceptionally mild winter.
Schriever said the Idaho Fish and Game Commission is expected to set conservative bag limits, fishing boundaries and dates for the 2010 spring chinook fishing season in March. If the fish show up at Bonneville Dam on the Columbia River as projected, bag limits can be expanded.
Washington will set its Columbia River seasons Thursday.
The technical advisory committee, made of state, tribal and federal fisheries managers, is estimating a return of 225,000 spring chinook to the Snake River and its tributaries.