Chinook season on the Columbia holds plenty of promise

  • Wed Feb 1st, 2012 5:36pm
  • Sports

By Wayne Kruse Special to The Herald

The first spring chinook of the young year was caught Tuesday in the lower Columbia River, heralding what could become the fourth-largest return of upriver (above Bonneville) fish since 1980.

If the forecast proves true, and given better fishing conditions than last year’s high, cold, dirty water, this could be a banner season for the big river’s uber-popular springer fishery.

The first spring king of 2012, weighing 18.2 pounds, was taken commercially in the Cathlamet area.

Washington and Oregon biologists have predicted a run of 314,200 springers (compared to a forecast of 198,400 last year), to include 277,000 4-year old fish, 36,000 larger 5-year olds, and a scattering of big 6-year olds. The larger fish, according to state biologist Joe Hymer in Vancouver, tend to return earlier than their younger brethren.

The record run occurred in 2001, when 440,000 kings nosed up the Columbia.

Fishing was tough last spring and as the negative word got around, both the effort (155,000 angler trips) and catch (11,700 chinook) dropped below expectations. This season could be much better.

“Not only is the run forecast well above average, but fishing conditions should be a lot better than last year when anglers had to contend with weeks of high, turbid water,” said Cindy LeFleur, the state’s Columbia River policy manager.

Forecasts for lower Columbia tributaries such as the Cowlitz, Kalama, Lewis and Willamette do not generally share in the strength of the upriver run.

The lower river is open now, from the mouth to the I-5 bridge in Vancouver, and opens from I-5 upriver to Beacon Rock on March 1.

Starting later this month, most spring chinook anglers from this area probably will again concentrate around the I-5 bridge, even though the crowds can be horrendous. It’s easy to find, easy to fish, and has a good ramp just upriver from the bridge on the Washington side. The second most popular spot, Hymer said, will probably be just downstream from Cathlamet, around Tenasillahe Island. Anglers there (just 20 miles above the Astoria bridge) get first crack at fish fresh in from saltwater.

Biologists say Columbia River salmon runs are benefitting from much-improved ocean survival rates, due in large part to La Nina conditions the past couple of years, and run strength carries pretty much across the anadromous spectrum. As a result, angling effort and catch rates last season (except for springers) were impressive: a record 378,000 angler trips on the lower river for all salmonid species in 2011; 25,000 summer steelhead kept in 2011, smashing the old record of 18,300; some 45,000 adult chinook (spring, summer, fall) kept in 2011, second only to the 49,000 in 2010; and 11,600 Hanford Reach fall chinook kept in 2011, besting the record catch of 1998.

Not only was the 2011 season a hot one on the Big C for most salmonid species, but 2012 is shaping up to be as good or better. The forecast for summer chinook — the fish caught above Wenatchee and on up to the Chief Joseph Dam above Brewster — is for a run stronger than any since 1980, some 91,000 fish. The fall chinook run is predicted to be similar to last year’s decent numbers, and the sockeye run, if predictions of 462,000 coming back are close, almost certainly will be a record.

That means another great sockeye fishery on the upper river, Wenatchee/Brewster/Bridgeport, because the vast majority of those fish are heading for the Okanogan and the Canadian hatchery on the Osoyoos system. Does it mean a recreational season on Lake Wenatchee? Maybe, maybe not, and we won’t know for sure until counts on the Wenatchee River are in. Hymer said about 29,000 of that huge number of sockeye are predicted for the Wenatchee system, and biologists there need a spawning exscapement of about 23,000 before considering a season.

So again it’ll be wait and see.

The summer steelhead run this year is forecast to be 365,000 fish at Bonneville, about the 10-year average and similar to last year’s run that drew heavy participation and good fishing up and down the river. Much of last year’s catch was taken from beaches on the Washington side of the lower river, from Vancouver downstream, Hymer said, but fishermen also did well in the Hanford Reach and on tributaries upriver, such as the Wenatchee and Methow.

Shad and smelt do not share in the Columbia’s rosy fishing outlook for 2012, however. Biologists don’t present a formal forecast for shad, but Hymer said the species has been declining steadily since the record run of 6.3 million fish in 2005. He said the state expects about a million shad back this season, roughly similar to last year’s run, and that’s still a bunch of fish.

Smelt, or Columbia River Eulachon as they’re more properly called, were placed on the federal “threatened” list in 2010, after years of decreasing populations. Hymer said biologists expect a small improvement in the run, but almost certainly not enough to consider a recreational or commercial season.

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