It’s a time for celebration for anyone who fancies getting out on the Columbia River again. The first reported spring chinook salmon of the New Year was hauled in Wednesday – an 18-pounder of lower river hatchery origin.
Then came the second, third and fourth chinook of the new season, all netted during the 24-hour fishery that began at 6 p.m. Tuesday on the lower Columbia with white sturgeon as the primary target. The average weight of the chinook was 15.7 pounds, according to the updated Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife landings report.
The first chinook reported was caught in Zone 2 (from river mile 18 up to river mile 53) and fetched $16 per pound, a nice price though not as high as the $25 spent last year for the first fish.
A second spring chinook reported was caught farther up river in in Zone 4 which runs from the mouth of the Lewis River in southwest Washington up to the Clark/Skamania county line.
That initial thin line of chinook has even reached as far upriver as Bonneville Dam. A single fish started the annual spring chinook tally by appearing in the count window Wednesday.
The states of Oregon and Washington in December established four 24-hour non-tribal commercial sturgeon fisheries in the area from the river mouth to Bonneville Dam. The fisheries begin on Tuesdays between Jan. 18 and Feb. 8. It’s a commercial white sturgeon fishery but rules allow the sale of any adipose fin clipped salmon caught incidentally.
Ocean bright spring chinook salmon will be moving into the Columbia River in increasing numbers in the weeks ahead, setting the stage for one of the river’s most popular fisheries, according to the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife’s Weekender Report. Anglers typically start landing early-returning "springers" in early February, but the best fishing doesn’t start until March when larger numbers of fish arrive in the river on their spawning journey.
"This is a good time to dust off your gear, prepare your boat and maybe do a little prospecting," said Joe Hymer, a WDFWfish biologist. "You want to be ready to go when the bulk of the run arrives."
According to the pre-season forecast, a total of 198,400 upriver spring chinook will return to the Columbia River Basin this year -- well below last year’s run of 315,345, but close to the 10-year average. Upriver spring chinook are fish bound for hatcheries and spawning grounds above Bonneville, which sits at about river mile 146.
And 40,000 of this year’s upriver fish are expected to be 5-year-olds, compared to 7,855 last year.
In addition, 62,400 of the 104,000 fish headed back to the Willamette River are projected to be 5-year-olds. Fishery officials estimate that wild, naturally produced fish will make up about 20 percent of the Willamette return. The Willamette fish turn off the Columbia at Portland.
"We’re definitely expecting more big fish this year," Hymer said. "Five-year-olds can run from 18 to 30 pounds apiece."
The Willamette spring chinook return rebounded last year with an estimated return of 110,500 adult fish to the mouth of the Columbia, which was the seventh highest since 1970. Numbers had been low, ranging from 34,000 to 52,000 from 2003-2009.
The 5-year-old components in this year’s returns are “both higher than normal” in proportion to other age classes, according to John North of the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. The upper Columbia run is most often dominated by 4-year-olds while the Willamette run is noted for strong 5-year-old returns.
“You’re going to get more 5s in the Willamette run,” North said. The 2011 estimate for 5-year-olds represent a 61 percent of the overall run. Most of the rest of the run will be 4-year-olds with a few 6-year-olds mixed in. Over the past 10 years 5-year-olds have comprised as much as 66 percent of the Willamette spring chinook adult return and as little as 16 percent. For the upper Columbia run 5-year-olds have comprised as much 60 percent, though only three of the past ten years have been greater than 20 percent, and as little as 2 percent.
If the forecast comes true that should mean better than normal early season fishing. The Willamette fish “exhibit a broader migration pattern and usually contained a greater proportion of early-returning Age-5 fish than other spring Chinook runs, according to last year’s ODFW-WDFW spring staff report.
Fishery managers from Washington and Oregon are scheduled to meet Feb. 8 to work out fishing seasons and regulations for both the spring chinook fishery and white sturgeon fishery below Bonneville Dam.
The permanent sport rules for the lower Columbia mainstem spring chinook fishery have the season open through March with a two hatchery adult daily limit, but the daily limit and length of the season will likely be adjusted during the joint state hearing.
As in previous years, only hatchery-reared fish marked with a clipped adipose fin and a healed scar may be retained. All wild spring chinook, identifiable by an intact adipose fin, must be released unharmed.
Fishing for spring chinook is currently open on the Columbia River below Portland’s Interstate 5 Bridge, where the limit is two adult fish per day. Anglers in Washington may retain two adult springers per day on the Cowlitz and Deep rivers, but are limited to one adult fish a day on the Lewis and Kalama rivers.
"The Cowlitz River and waters near the Willamette River are probably the best bets early in the season, because spring chinook usually start showing up there first," Hymer said