The curtain has opened on the last act in the Columbia River system’s “Year of the Salmon.”
The performance began with good returns of spring chinook followed by this summer’s post-dams record returns of sockeye and a great showing of coho. Now the big stars are taking stage.
The forecast record run of up to 1.6 million fall chinook – the king salmon – began its stampede up the Columbia River and over Bonneville Dam with an exclamation point this week.
A one-day record of 67,024 chinook was counted on Sunday only to be exceeded Monday by a record rush of 67,521 chinook.
Last year’s record run of nearly 1.2 million chinook was dominated by 3-year-old fish averaging 8-12 pounds. More than 70 percent of this year’s run is comprised of 4- and 5-year-olds, the bulk of them running 18-23 pounds.
The fish are parading up the Columbia and Snake rivers, where they’ll fill tribal gillnets and attract swarms of recreational fishermen to traditional hot spots. Fishing often is best at the mouths of tributaries, where some of the chinook are headed to spawn. Even upstream-bound fish congregate briefly at the tributaries to relish the cooler water.
Anglers will be flocking this week to destinations upstream from Bonneville Dam, including the mouths of the Umatilla, Deschutes, Klickitat and Wind rivers.
The biggest fishery for inland anglers will be this weekend through mid-October in the Hanford Reach – the country’s last free-flowing stretch of the Columbia. This fishery targets chinook bound to spawn in the Vernita area below Priest Rapids Dam.
“It takes about seven days for salmon going over Bonneville to swim up and get settled into the Reach,” said Paul Hoffarth, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife fisheries biologist in the Tri-Cities.
Anglers have already been catching early arrivals.
On Sunday, Spokane fishing guide Dave Grove of Captain Dave’s Guide Service (509 939-6727) helped his clients catch three adult chinook. Wild as well as unmarked hatchery salmon can be kept in the Reach. His anglers also caught a jack and released two wild steelhead.
On Monday, Grove fished hard with two anglers, trolling Brad’s Super Baits plug for 8 hours to boat two nice adult chinook.
“It’s a little hit and miss early on, and that’s not all bad because you can relax and enjoy plenty of elbow room,” he said, noting that fishing pressure has been light and water temps had dropped to 67 degrees.
“That’s going to change this week when the kings start stacking up. Lots of fish will be caught.”
This mega-run of salmon has been quirky.
Last year’s record fall run first lured anglers who set a record for the number salmon caught during the lower Columbia recreational fishery – in the 145 miles of the river below Bonneville Dam.
This year’s fall chinook attracted a record amount of recreational fishing effort in the lower river but fell short of last year’s catch.
“I think the fish concentrated in the channel and weren’t moving up normal pathways, so nobody really got into them,” said Ron Roler, WDFW Columbia River salmon manager. “The Buoy 10 fishery had its moments but wasn’t as good as we anticipated.”
Fish managers are suggesting that the full forecast of 1.6 million chinook may not materialize. But judging by the numbers he’d crunched by Tuesday, he described the lower Columbia as “jammed full of fish.”
That rankles downstream anglers who saw their season curbed to protect endangered wild runs headed for lower Columbia tributaries.
“Some anglers say it’s mismanagement to have this many fish and still shut down some lower river seasons,” Roler said. “What they don’t understand is that it was driven by the tule (lower river) stocks, not by all the upriver brights headed for the Hanford Reach.”
He said the tules moved up first, giving him low numbers of fish for basing his decisions.
“The upriver brights aren’t in as big a hurry and held back, probably because of the warmer water,” he said. “I try to squeeze out as much fishing opportunity as possible. It’s as frustrating for me as anyone else that the darned fish didn’t do what we wanted them to.”
A 3-degree decrease in the Columbia River’s temperature last weekend triggered the surge of fish over Bonneville, Roler said.
Now it’s game on for inland anglers. The biggest variable is whether cooler weather and rain will drop Columbia River temperatures. The fish are more aggressive and hit lures more regularly in cooler water.
The spike in salmon numbers in recent years has attracted more anglers, and many of them have different styles. Traditional trollers at the mouth of the Deschutes are running into more jiggers who are anchoring on hot spots marked in their GPS units.
Similarly, anglers are trolling up AND downstream on the Hanford Reach. That’s no problem when pressure is light, but conflicts can occur when the Reach from Ringold to Vernita becomes flush with boats.
While most of the salmon are destined for the Priest Rapids Hatchery or spawning naturally downstream from the dam, more than 20 percent of the run can be expected to swim over Priest Rapids Dam.
“Last year, 260,000 fall chinook went over Priest Rapids, poked around for a while and came back down Priest Rapids to spawn,” Hoffarth said. “The Wanapums (tribe) already have their nets in five days a week above Priest Rapids. Last year they harvested 400-600 fall chinook for subsistence.”
By October, the Reach below Priest Rapids will be a logjam of chinook, a few of which will exceed 50 pounds.
Hoffarth calls the forecast of 1.6 million adult fall chinook “uncharted territory for fish managers.”
“These are incredible numbers that are hard to believe,” he said.
“We were spoiled last year when the run started much earlier than typical,” Hoffarth said. “That spread out the catch. This year, the run seems to be coming upstream at a more normal time if not later.”
The first spawning occurs around Oct. 20. After Oct. 22, fishing is closed on a portion of the Reach to provide more resting room for migrating waterfowl.
With so many fish coming in, some anglers ask why the state doesn’t raise the three-salmon daily limit in the Reach.
“Some people have pushed for a six-fish limit,” Hoffarth said. “But if you have four people in a boat, that means you have to catch 24 fish in a day. That would put the boat on the water a long time. With a three-fish limit, a boat can get off the water sooner and turn over that fishing area to other anglers.
“We have six prime weeks to harvest as many of those fish as we can. Just as important, we want to give as many people as possible a good opportunity.”
Contact Rich Landers at (509) 459-5508 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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