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Big Flows Slow Chinook Fishing, States Approve Another Week; Run Late Or Smaller Than Expected?
Posted on Friday, April 08, 2011 (PST)

A spring chinook fishery closed April 4, and slowed so far by a sudden flood of spring runoff, gets another shot with an opener on the lower Columbia River mainstem that is expected to last from today through at least next Friday, April 15.


Fishery managers from Washington and Oregon decided that eight more days of fishing could be allowed with little risk that the catch of hatchery-reared spring chinook would surpass harvest limits. The reopened fishery is for spring chinook, steelhead and shad.


The popular fishery had closed for a catch assessment April 4. Fishery managers will meet again April 14 to determine whether to allow additional fishing time.


The reopened fishing area from Buoy 10 at the river mouth upriver to Rooster Rock, which is at river mile 129 and 22 miles upstream of Portland, for boat and bank anglers, and to the fishing boundary below Bonneville Dam for bank anglers only. When the fishery is open, anglers can retain one marked, hatchery-reared adult chinook salmon as part of their daily limit.


Anglers may also retain shad and hatchery-reared steelhead when the spring chinook fishery is open. All salmon and steelhead not marked as a hatchery fish by a clipped adipose fin must be released unharmed.  


The eight-day extension will give anglers another chance to catch hatchery-reared spring chinook still available for harvest, said Cindy LeFleur, Columbia River policy coordinator for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. Through April 4, anglers had caught and kept a total of 4,500 spring chinook. Approximately 3,800 were upriver spring chinook, which is only 49 percent of the 7,750-fish harvest sport allocation for upriver chinook set for the period ending Monday.


"Fishing conditions on the Columbia River have been pretty rough in recent weeks, leaving the sport catch well below the harvest guideline," LeFleur said. "These extra fishing days will give anglers some time to make up for the high water and turbid river conditions that have undercut catch rates to date."


“It’s unfortunate that the poor conditions have put a damper on the catch so far, but hopefully, conditions will improve,” said Chris Kern of the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. “We’ll continue to monitor the fishery and intend to review catches again next week to see if there are additional opportunities for more fishing time.”


From March 1 to April 4, sport fishermen had logged 82,300 angler trips on the lower Columbia River.


Through late March angler effort had been tracking close to preseason expectations, with catch rates slightly below expectations. Fishery officials had expected an overall catch of 10,100 fish, including upriver, Willamette and other lower river spring chinook stocks.


But with a sudden rising tide of spring snowmelt coming down the river, which was also boosted by higher than normal precipitation across the Columbia-Snake River basin, the fishing effort began to lag and the success rate plummeted.


For the weekend ending March 27, boat anglers in the Portland to Longview area averaged 0.39 spring chinook caught per boat. This past week boat anglers fishing in the Portland to Longview areas averaged 0.13 spring chinook caught per boat, according to surveys conducted by the Oregon and Washington departments of fish and wildlife.


The total upriver “catch,” which includes kept fish and release mortalities, was 2,967 in March, but only 586 during the first four days of April, which included a weekend. April is typically when greater numbers of spring chinook are beginning to find their way back into the river on their spawning run. Upriver spring chinook are stocks headed for hatcheries and spawning grounds above Bonneville. They include naturally produced fish from the Snake River and upper Columbia that are protected under the Endangered Species Act.


The overall harvest of upriver fish are capped as a means of limiting impacts to listed stocks.


The Columbia River on Thursday reached a peak of 14.6 feet elevation (16 feet is flood stage), as measured at Vancouver, Wash., but is expected to drop to 11 feet by Monday, according to forecasts. A lowered river could help improve fishing conditions.


Meanwhile, the discharge from Bonneville Dam jumped to peak flow Wednesday of 395,000 cubic feet per second, including 173 kcfs of spill. That compared to a five-year average discharge for that date of 177 kcfs. Flows from the dam jumped form 261 kcfs on March 31 to 304 kcfs April 1 and continued rising until a slight ebb to 376 kcfs Thursday.


Along with the eight additional fishing days, lower-river anglers could get another chance to catch spring chinook in May, once fishery managers update the run forecast. The preseason forecast projected a return of 198,400 upriver spring this year. Treaty tribes, non-Indian lower river commercial and sport fishers, and non-tribal sport fisheries above Bonneville are all allowed to take a portion of the run.


The lower river fisheries are being managed to assure no more than 70 percent of their allocation is taken before a run-size update is made, likely in early May, based in large part on dam counts at Bonneville Dam. The 30 percent "buffer" is to designed prevent a harvest greater than the harvest shares if the run turns out to be smaller than forecast. A return that is smaller than was forecast in preseason means the harvest shares would shrink.


"If the fish return at or above expectations, we will look toward providing additional days of fishing on the river later in spring," LeFleur said.


During a Wednesday meeting set to decide whether or not to reopen the season before the run update, a tribal representative, and one from the Idaho Department of Fish and Game, asked Oregon and Washington officials to delay the reopener.


Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission biologist Stuart Ellis said the organization’s four member tribes “request that the states not reopen the lower river to sport fishing at this time” because of what have been relatively low spring chinook counts at Bonneville. The Nez Perce, Umatilla, Warm Springs and Yakama tribes do their spring fishing, for the most part, in Columbia reservoirs above Bonneville Dam.


“There is concern that the run could be something smaller than forecast,” Ellis said. The tribes say they want the states to hold off “until these counts start to pick up a little bit.”


The IDFG’s Pete Hassemer told the joint state hearing panelists the paltry fish counts posed a dilemma -- deciding whether that meant the run is late-timed, or if in fact is smaller than was forecast.


“We’d like to see some evidence that the run size supports the level of fisheries that are planned,” Hassemer said. He said that each passing day will add to the needed evidence, such as additional daily counts and the success, or lack thereof, of a lower river commercial fishery that was ongoing Wednesday.


“Our request is that there would be a postponement,” Hassemer said. Another of Idaho’s concerns is that more harvest now would disproportionately take from the beginnings of the run, if indeed it is a late timed run.


The total count at Bonneville through Tuesday was 338. The 10-year average through April 5 is a Bonneville count of 1,477 fish. But the ODFW-WDFW fact sheet prepared for the hearing points out that the spring chinook run has been late timed in five of the past six years with 50 percent of run having passed the dam by dates ranging from April 18 to May 13.


A host of anglers and fishing guides testified that is virtually no risk that the catch during the next eight days would exceed the sport allocation, even if the run size is smaller than predicted.


Ed Wickersham said that the 2011 run is also likely later timed than the longer term historic average. Regardless, he said the states have management tools, such as the 30 percent buffer, in place to keep the harvest within the allocation. And river conditions at least in the near term will prevent a huge haul of fish, he said.


The fishing extension starting April 8 does not affect the spring chinook season above Bonneville Dam, which is open seven days a week through April 24 between the Tower Island powerlines below The Dalles Dam and the Washington/Oregon state line, 17 miles upriver from McNary Dam. Bank fishing is also allowed from Bonneville Dam upriver to the powerlines located about 6 miles below The Dalles Dam through April 24.


Anglers fishing above Bonneville Dam can retain up to two marked, hatchery-reared adult chinook salmon or hatchery steelhead as part of their daily limit.


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