Based on the in-season projection through July 31, last month's steelhead catch in the lower Columbia River fell just short of last year's record July harvest (dating back to at least the early 1970s).
The July "kept" steelhead catch on the Columbia mainstem from Bonneville Dam 146 miles down to the river mouth was 8,213 according to preliminary estimates. The total was just eight fish shy of the 2009 total, which was taken from what turned out to be the largest upriver summer steelhead run on a record dating back to 1938. There were 601,619 summer steelhead counted passing Bonneville last year.
In all, anglers caught 15,589 steelhead during July but released 7,276 unmarked fish that are presumed in large part to be naturally produced and as such protected under the Endangered Species Act. A large majority of hatchery produced steelhead are marked with a clipped adipose fin so they can be identified by anglers as harvestable fish.
And August angling could be hot as well. Counts of steelhead climbing over Bonneville remain strong. From Jan. 1 through Tuesday 207,270 steelhead, including 95,576 unclipped fish, had passed over Bonneville's fish ladders. That total is well ahead of the 10-year average (134,017 through Aug. 3) and actually ahead of the pace (150,733 through Aug. 3) last year. In 2010, the steelhead counts ballooned in mid-August with a peak count of 30,053 on Aug. 13, nine daily counts of more than 10,000 and three other counts well over 20,000.
"Sometimes the catch in August can be as big or bigger as in July," said Joe Hymer of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. He noted however that the steelhead catch may dip when the fall chinook run begins in earnest. Many sport fishers turn their attention to the big salmon later in August.
In all anglers took 74,464 trips to the lower Columbia this year during the June 16-July 31 period, caught and kept 2,668 summer chinook and released 1,350 and kept 10,115 steelhead and released 7,961. They also caught and kept 243 sockeye salmon and released 1,015 during the period, according to the preliminary estimates.
"Half of the (steelhead) catch was off the Washington bank" of the Columbia, Hymer said of the July total. They caught 4,110, including 1,177 along the river bank at Longview, Wash. Oregon bank anglers caught 1,063 and boat anglers caught 3,040 steelhead during July.
The steelhead seem to prefer to make their spawning surge nearer the shore in shallower water near the dropoff into the deep main channel, Hymer said.
The upriver summer steelhead return is made up of three classifications of fish that pass over Bonneville from during April 1 through October each year. Fish passing from April through June are considered Skamania stock steelhead destined mainly for tributaries within Bonneville Pool.
Fish passing during July through October are categorized as Group A index or Group B index fish. Group B steelhead primarily return to tributaries in the Salmon and Clearwater rivers in Idaho, while Group A steelhead return to tributaries throughout the Columbia and Snake basins. Group B steelhead are typically larger than A fish, having spend a longer time at sea growing.
And anglers that like to catch those big B steelhead might just be in luck this year. The overall 2010 forecast for the summer steelhead return to Bonneville Dam is 453,000 upriver fish, including 16,400 Skamania index fish, 337,500 Group A index fish, and 99,100 Group B index fish. The forecast for wild fish totals 124,600 steelhead, with the majority expected to be Group A fish.
The anticipated B total would be greater (154 percent) than the recent 10-year average, and would be the second highest return since at least 1984. Since Group B fish are mainly 2-salt fish, the strong Group B forecast is, in part, a reflection of the positive ocean and outmigration conditions observed in 2008, according to the 2010 fall joint staff report produced by the WDFW and Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife staffs.