State, federal and tribal fishery managers set the Columbia River spring chinook fishing seasons, and for other fish like smelt and sturgeon.
This comes on the heels of a forecast of 188,800 upriver-bound Columbia River adult spring chinook announced in early December, compared to last year’s forecast of 232,500 (actual return was 289,000).
“The spring chinook forecast would rank as the ninth largest dating back to 1990, if it comes in as expected,” said Joe Hymer, a state Fish and Wildlife biologist.
The largest spring adult chinook return on record was 541,000 (364,600 was the forecast) in 2001, and the worst was 12,792 (12,000) in 1995.
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The joint staff recommended a 38-day spring chinook catch-and-keep season on the Lower Columbia from March 1 through April 9 – except closed March 29 and April 5 only – from Buoy 10 up to Beacon Rock, plus bank fishing only from Beacon Rock up to the Bonneville Dam deadline. The daily limit would be two salmon and only one may be a hatchery-marked chinook.
Currently, the Lower Columbia from the I-5 Bridge downstream is open for hatchery spring chinook and steelhead through March 31. The Columbia from I-5 up to Highway 395 Bridge is open for hatchery steelhead through March 31.
The Columbia River from the Tower Island power lines (about six miles below The Dalles Dam) to the Oregon-Washington border, plus the bank area between Bonneville Dam and Tower Island power lines will see a 52-day spring chinook catch-and-keep season from March 16 through May 6.
The catch expectation is about 9,100 adult spring chinook (7,130 upriver spring chinook mortality) for the Lower Columbia fishery, and 900 adult fish for the season above Bonneville.
In the sport fishery, anglers can keep only hatchery-marked spring chinook, which are identified by a clipped adipose fin located on top near the tail.
The spring chinook fishery creates a fishing frenzy beginning as early as January and February.
There are a wide range of variables that make the spring salmon fishery a difficult one to pinpoint when they’ll actually arrive en masse.
Normally in the early part of the season the weather, high water levels from upstream runoff and snow melt, and cold water temperatures dictate their migration pattern.
While the spring chinook catch usually starts off spotty in late February and March, the sport catch allocation below Bonneville Dam is often taken by early April even though the peak return occurs in late April or early May.
Last year, 151,173 angler trips were taken with 19,586 spring chinook kept and 5,052 released for a 01.6 fish per rod average. The catch and keep fishery was open 74 days of the 107 days from March 1 to June 15.
Fishery managers will reconvene on April 7 to review the on-going fisheries, and could consider an extension if the run is returning stronger than expected.
Fishery managers have buffers in place and with in-season protocols that will allow them to make adjustments in a timely fashion to avoid getting into trouble if the run comes in under forecast.
Fishery managers base some of their predictions on jack chinook returns from the previous spring. Jacks are male fish that measure less than 24 inches long and spend only a year, rather than two to four years, at sea before returning to freshwater to spawn.
The jack chinook count at Bonneville Dam this past spring was 18,100, and was the eighth highest count since 1980.
This past year, there was a good run of spring chinook jacks, and whenever that happens the run the following year tends to be larger. However, fishery biologists have miscalculated in previous years where big jack runs have occurred.
Another concern and by far one of the biggest unknowns is how the spring chinook fared when they migrated to the ocean. There was a lot of discussion on the “Blob” (a large mass of warm water) when forecasts were set late last year.
Columbia River salmon runs that came back early last spring and summer did pretty well, and didn’t encounter negative ocean conditions and horrific summer water temperatures, which caused trouble for sockeye and some steelhead runs.
The spring chinook’s prized red-fleshed meat and high Omega 3 oil content rival that of the popular Copper River kings from Alaska.
Wild spring chinook and smelt are protected under the Federal Endangered Species Act, and fishery managers set stringent catch limits on sport, and tribal and nontribal commercial catches.
In other related news, the Cowlitz River will be open on Saturday, Feb. 6 from 7 a.m. to 1 p.m. for bank only smelt fishing. The daily limit will be 10 pounds per person. More dates could be added if the run appears stronger than anticipated.
Last year, the smelt return was stronger than expected and allowed some limited sport fishing time on both rivers.
The Bonneville Pool sturgeon fishery will remain open for catch-and-release fishing on beginning Feb. 8 in the Columbia mainstem from Bonneville Dam up to The Dalles Dam, including tributaries.