Only a hint of the annual spring chinook salmon run has arrived in the Columbia River but anxious sport fishers are doing their best land some of the precious cargo, already logging an estimated 13,452 angler trips to the lower mainstem through March 6 this year.
The result is a Jan. 1-March 6 kept catch of 564 adult spring chinook. Mainstem fishing before March 1 was confined to the area from the Interstate 5 bridge between Portland-Vancouver down to the river mouth. Boat fishing opened March 1 from the I-5 Bridge upstream to Rooster Rock plus the Oregon and Washington banks from Rooster Rock upstream to Bonneville Dam were opened to the retention of adipose fin-clipped spring chinook, adipose fin-clipped steelhead, and shad.
Another 107 chinook have been caught and released. Anglers must release fish that have not been marked at the hatchery with a clipped adipose fin. The idea is to make sure as many unmarked and protected naturally produced fish can proceed upstream to spawn in the wild.
Of the chinook kept so far, 508 (90 percent) were judged to be of upriver origin based on fisheries officials’ sampling for “Visual Stock Identification.” Upriver spring chinook are fish bound for hatcheries and tributary spawning grounds above Bonneville Dam (river mile 146) in Idaho, Oregon and Washington.
There have also been 52 steelhead kept and 117 released through March 6.
The effort resulted in the second highest number of adult spring chinook being kept (280) for the month of February since at least 1978 (294 fish during non-selective fishery), according to the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife’s Joe Hymer.
Preseason forecasts predict that a total of 331,800 spring chinook salmon to the mouth of the Columbia River. Such a return would be smaller than 2010’s actual return of 470,850 but higher than the 2005-2009 average of 203,501.
The 2011 return is expected to include 104,100 adult spring chinook that would turn off the Columbia at Portland into the Willamette River. That would be greater than the 2005-2009 average actual return of 45,033 and come close to matching the 2010 return of 110,500.
The upriver run is expected to total 198,400 adult fish, which would be smaller than the 2010 return of 315,300 fish but higher to the 2005-2009 average of 134,733.
The upriver run is still just a trickle with a total of 30 fish having been counted at Bonneville Dam through Wednesday. The high count so far this year was seven on Monday. The count of 27 through March7 is slightly behind the recent 10 -year average of 127 but it is early yet. The run usually builds toward peak counts in late April to early May.
The catch so far has all been from boats and in the area off Camas/Washougal, Washington just upstream of Portland to just downstream of Portland-Vancouver.
The high incidence of upriver fish this early in the season is a bit of a puzzler, since the Willamette run is usually somewhat earlier timed than the upriver run. But this year’s run is expected to include a higher than normal percentage of 5-year-old upriver fish.
“They tend to come in earlier,” than 4-year-old fish, Hymer said. “What’s a head scratcher is that the Willamette 5-year-olds also usually come in early.” Willamette 5-year-olds are expected to make up over half of that anticipated run, an estimated 62,400 fish.
Otherwise, spring chinook sightings have been scarce. Test fisheries conducted on each of the past three months have netted a total of seven chinook and nine steelhead in 42 commercial “drifts.” The test fishing in the lower river estuary is conducted to evaluate the number and species composition of fish in the river. The data is used help the states of Oregon and Washington decide when and where to schedule mainstem commercial fisheries. None have been conducted to far during the spring season.
Likewise spring chinook numbers are low in lower river “select areas” such as Youngs Bay at Astoria, Ore., near the mouth of the Columbia. Nine commercial outings in the off-channel area since Feb. 13 have netted a total of 35 chinook.