YAKIMA – Chance Fiander breaks into a sprint across the Columbia River’s rocky bank, pulls a fishing pole from its holder and gives it a good yank.
Moments later, he reels in a 15-pound spring chinook.
His fishing buddy, Matt McConville, nets it.
But before Fiander gets the fish onto his string, another one of his poles gets a hit; he springs to it, and the chore is repeated.
“These rocks take a toll on your feet at the end of the day,” the 24-year-old said with a laugh as he grabbed the pole.
Fiander, a Yakama tribal member, is among many drawn to the river to take a swipe at what’s predicted to be the third-largest spring chinook run since the late 1970s.
So far, more than 195,000 spring chinook have passed Bonneville Dam, and a total of 350,000 are expected to return this spring, the largest since 2002 and the third-highest count since 1977.
Below the dam, fishing enthusiasts have already taken more than 23,000 chinook from the run.
Larry Swanson, of Ridgefield, Wash., said he doubled his catch to four from only two last year. Sportsmen such as Swanson have a daily limit of one spring chinook below the dam this season or two above the dam.
“It was a good year – we had a lot of fun and fishing is always great,” he said.
And fishermen from four Columbia River tribes – Yakama, Nez Perce, Warm Springs and Umatilla – have taken another 4,390 chinook while fishing from banks and scaffolds.
Cooler ocean water temperatures and plenty of food contributed to the relatively large return, said fish biologist Stuart Ellis with the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission.
“And also I think these fish are a good byproduct of better hatchery practices and supplemental efforts going on,” he said.
Considered sacred among Northwest tribes, the spring chinook with its bluish-green back and silver sides is the first salmon to return to area rivers and streams each year.
Rich in healthy fish oils, tribes consider chinook the best-tasting and largest of its salmon family. Adults average roughly 36 inches in length and weigh anywhere from 10 to 50 pounds.
It’s before noon and Fiander and McConville have a combined catch of 13 chinook.
“Today is a slow day,” McConville said. “Yesterday we had about 20 by this time.”
Salmon play an economic, cultural and subsistence role for tribal members. During the commercial spring chinook season, tribal members such as Fiander and McConville aren’t subject to the same restrictions that others face on daily limits. However, tribal authorities do set limits on the overall number of salmon caught by their members.
“Some (commercial fishermen) were landing 70, 80 fish a day, and that’s a good record to have,” Fiander said.
Nearby, fishing poles propped in holders line the Washington bank of the river, as do groups of fishers. Just above, makeshift shelters of rough timber covered with tarps shield against the relentless winds of the Gorge.
Fishers dash from their shelters to grab their poles when a fish is on. Everyone is bundled up in jackets and hooded sweaters.
Tribal members usually fish a roughly 60-mile stretch of the Columbia River between the Bonneville Dam and John Day Dam, about six miles upriver from Maryhill.
But this year they were allowed to fish below the dam to get an early shot at the run.
Yakamas honor spring salmon with a feast during ceremonies every year in April. Late runs the past few years provided little salmon for those ceremonies. But more than 8,000 were caught for ceremonies in March and April.
Roughly 400 tribal members, about 200 of them Yakamas, rely on fishing for a significant part of their income.
So far this spring, anglers have made about 166,000 trips to the river, and there are about 200 non-Indian commercial fishermen that fish the river as well, said river policy coordinator Cindy LeFleur with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.
While sportsman fishing ended below the dam on April 18, tribal fishing from scaffolds and from shore with hook-and-line fishing continues.
Meanwhile, non-tribal members get a shot at select tributaries above Bonneville Dam, LeFleur said.
“For all the tributaries, the prospects are good,” she said. “They’ve got plenty of fish, and fishing has been pretty good in most of them.”
But most of those areas have been a bottleneck of boats, said commercial fisherman Les Clark, who fishes below Bonneville Dam.
“I didn’t want to go over there and jump into that mess,” he said.
With the run nearing the halfway mark, he hopes a commercial season will soon open in his area near the Interstate 5 bridge.
“We’ve got a nice run of fish,” he said. “We should have at least half the run left.”