The first official day of winter still hasn’t arrived, but salmon anglers are giddy about what lies ahead this spring.
Fishery managers announced the 2014 Columbia River upriver spring chinook forecast of 227,000, which would be the fifth-largest return since 1980 and almost 100,000 more fish than last year.
“I’m fairly optimistic about the forecast, and wouldn’t be surprised if it comes in a little bigger than expected,” said Ron Roler, a Washington Fish and Wildlife Columbia River policy coordinator. “It’s a number that should be fairly good for the sport fishery.”
Every winter, anglers with “cabin fever” look forward to seeing what the projections will be in the Columbia River.
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The Upper Columbia portion of the spring chinook forecast for 2014 is 24,100 (compared to a forecast last year of 14,300 and an actual return of 18,000).
The Snake River spring/summer component is 125,000 (58,200 and 67,300). The Snake River spring wild fish is 42,200 (18,900 and 21,900).
Computer generated predictions vary all across the board, and in-season assessments are taken by looking at actual fish counts at places like Bonneville Dam.
One fishery manager summed it up as “early in the year, paper fish taste delicious, and then they start losing their taste if the returns don’t pan out.”
“The forecast is above the 10-year average and by our assessment it looks good, but we’ll have to wait and see,” said Kathryn Kostow, an Oregon Fish and Wildlife Columbia River fish analyst.
Fishery managers base some of their predictions on jack chinook returns from the previous spring. Jacks are male fish that spend only a year, rather than two to four years, at sea before returning to freshwater to spawn. The chinook jack count at Bonneville Dam this past spring was 33,820.
“We had another big run of jacks into the Columbia River this year, especially in the Snake River,” Kostow said. “Whenever we get those we tend to see a larger run the next year. But, we’ve had forecast errors in past years based on big jack runs so now we work with a more cautious planning process.”
Last year’s forecast of 141,400 wasn’t that much off the actual return of 123,100, but in 2012 a forecast of 314,200 fell way short at 203,090.
The largest spring chinook return on record was 440,336 (364,600 was the forecast) in 2001, and the worst was 12,792 (12,000) in 1995.
• A forecast for another popular spring chinook fishery, the Willamette River on the Oregon side of the Columbia, should come to light in the next week or two. The forecast in 2013 was 59,800 and the actual return was 47,300.
• Washington Fish and Wildlife is finalizing spring chinook forecasts for tributaries of the Lower Columbia River like the Cowlitz, Kalama and Lewis. They could come out this week. The forecast for tributaries above Bonneville Dam, such as Wind River, White Salmon River and Drano Lake, usually come out in January.
• The Columbia River spring chinook are highly sought for their tasty Omega-3 laced, red-orange-colored meat similar to Alaska’s Copper River salmon.
• Sport anglers will get 70 percent of the non-tribal share of spring chinook, and 30 percent goes to the commercial sector.
• A few early spring chinook are usually caught in January and February, but the height of the run is March through May.
• Spring chinook fishing opens Jan. 1 in the Columbia River downstream of I-5 Bridge. Daily limit is six fish, and up to two may be an adult hatchery-marked chinook or steelhead or one of each.
Fishery managers also released a forecast of 67,500 Upper Columbia summer chinook compared to 73,500 last year with an actual return of 67,500. These fish are commonly known as “June Hogs” for their size.