Another, even bigger, version of 2013’s record run of fall chinook to the Columbia River is forecast for this year – the largest flood of salmon since fish counts began at the new Bonneville Dam in 1938.
State, federal and tribal fish managers expect 1.6 million fall chinook salmon to head for the mouth of the Columbia this summer. That’s a 26 percent increase from the 1.26 million record run in 2013 that allowed anglers to set harvest records from the lower river through the Hanford Reach.
Add to that a huge forecast of 964,000 coho salmon to the Columbia and you have the makings of an epic fishing season.
“If there is ever a year folks want to take time off and catch fish, this would be the year,’’ said Robert Moxley, a member of the bistate Columbia River Recreational Adviser Group. “I’m more excited than you can possibly imagine.’’
There’s even more good news for Inland anglers:
• Spring chinook numbers should double last year’s runs to the Snake River, allowing full seasons upstream through Idaho’s Clearwater River.
• The fall chinook forecast includes a big chunk of fish for lower Columbia tributaries, but the bulk – 973,300 “upriver brights’’ – is headed for the Columbia’s free-flowing Hanford Reach as well as the Snake River and Idaho tributaries.
• Wild fall chinook in the Hanford Reach can be caught and kept by anglers, unlike wild steelhead. Guides already are booking trips with anglers looking to put slabs of fine fish on their dinner tables.
Still more good news: Two-thirds of the upriver brights are expected to be 4-year-olds, 12-18 pounds, compared to 5- to 8-pound 3-year-olds that dominated last year’s run.
“This is an incredible outlook for fall salmon, said Guy Norman, Washington Fish and Wildlife Department regional director in Vancouver. “I would never have bet on this kind of run strength occurring in the Columbia during my career.’’
Norman said he remembers when there were not enough upriver brights to reach the 40,000 spawning goal.
Stuart Ellis of the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission said the massive salmon numbers are likely the result of good survival of juveniles in the Columbia River coupled with an ocean rich in food.
“If we get some decent water when these fish need it, and manage the dams not to kill too many, we can have these numbers of fish,’’ Ellis said. “The ocean can’t do it unless the freshwater puts a lot of fish out.’’
The big coho forecast bodes well for a revival the Buoy 10 fishery – the August-early September salmon season upstream from the Columbia River mouth.
One million coho generally is considered the magic number to provide gangbuster coho fishing at Buoy 10.
Ocean fishing off the Columbia River mouth also has suffered from poor coho numbers in recent years.
In 2013, only about half the coho quota had been caught by Labor Day. State sampling often showed catch averages of only about a fish per rod.
Ron Roler, Columbia River policy coordinator for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, said it appears coho are the beneficiaries of good ocean conditions, same as the big fall chinook runs.
“This should provide very good offshore coho fishing, as well,’’ Watrous said.
“It’s beautiful,’’ said Butch Smith, owner of Coho Charters in Ilwaco. “We should have a great ocean and good Buoy 10 season.’’
Forecasts for the Columbia River, coastal and Puget Sound salmon runs will be officially presented at a public meeting beginning March 3 in Olympia.
The Pacific Fishery Management Council will adopt a range of ocean fishing options when it meets in Sacramento, Calif., March 8-13.
Final ocean fishing plans will be adopted in early April.
Allen Thomas of the Vancouver Columbian contributed to this report.