The estimated kept catch of 9,800 hatchery summer steelhead by anglers on the lower Columbia River so far this month (through Aug. 22) is already an all-time record not just for August but for any month in the past 32 years at the very least, according to data compiled by the Oregon and Washington departments of fish and wildlife.
Last month was the previous record at 8,549 fish, according Joe Hymer of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. The fishery biologist checked creel sampling data that goes back to 1969. That July catch beat the previous record for the month, 8,200 steelhead harvested in 2009.
July’s total steelhead “handle” – kept and released fish combined -- was 15,897, which was just 37 fish shy of the record for the month (15,934 in 2009).
Anglers can keep steelhead spawners that had been marked as juveniles at the hatchery with a clipped adipose fin. But they must release unclipped steelhead fish, many of which are presumed to be wild fish. Naturally produced Lower, Mid- and Upper Columbia, Lower Willamette River and Snake River steelhead are protected from take under the Endangered Species Act.
Through Aug. 22 the total steelhead handle, including 6,623 fish released back into the river, was 16,443. That’s an overall record too for any month dating back to at least 1969, edging out that 2009 total.
“That’s bigger than the entire catch in a lot of years,” Hymer said of angler success on the lower Columbia during the first three weeks of August this year. Fisheries managers consider the lower river to be from Tongue Point, which just upstream of Astoria, Ore., at about river mile 18, up to Bonneville Dam at river mile 146.
Hymer he said he felt the greatest contributors to fishing success could be river conditions.
“We do have a little bit higher water than normal and we do have a little bit cooler water than normal,” Hymer said. “That keeps them in a fighting mood.” As an example, flows in the Bonneville forebay this week were 183,000 cubic feet per second, which is 50 kcfs greater than the recent 10-year average. Water temperatures there had only in recent days risen to 70 degrees, which is about the 10-year-average, after being continuously below average through the spring-summer season.
There has also “been a big effort out there,” Hymer said. Those first three weeks of August witnessed 47,432 angler trips to the lower Columbia, about 14,000 during each of the first two weeks and nearly 19,000 last week.
There are high expectations. The preseason forecast is for a return of 390,900 (most of which are bound upstream of Bonneville) summer steelhead, which would be similar to the recent 10-year average of 410,100.
The fall chinook salmon return to the mouth of the Columbia is expected to include 399,600 adult upriver brights, which would be the second largest since at least 1964. Most of the URB chinook are destined for the Hanford Reach area of the Columbia River, Priest Rapids Hatchery, and the Snake River. Smaller components are destined for the Deschutes and Yakima rivers. ESA-listed Snake River wild fall chinook are a sub-component of the URB stock.
Fall chinook fishing has slowly been picking up. In the area between Buoy 10 at the river mouth and Tongue Point, the kept chinook jumped from 58 during the first week of August to 548 the following week to 4,280 for the week ending this past Sunday, Aug. 21, according to a fact sheet prepared by the Oregon and Washington department of fish and wildlife staffs
The catch in the lower river zone was 151 Aug. 1-7, 498 Aug. 8-14 and 2,066 Aug. 15-21.
The daily fall chinook counts upriver at Bonneville have been slowly climbing. The tally Wednesday was 3,124 and the total through Aug. 24 was 29,191. Fish counters at the dam begin counting chinook as “fall” fish on Aug. 1. Prior to that they are categorized as summer chinook and prior to that they are spring chinook.
A total of 260,225 steelhead had been counted at Bonneville through Wednesday. Daily counts there have been above 3,000 since July 21, and were above 5,000 from July 25 through Aug. 22. Counts Tuesday and Wednesday were 4,929 and 4,550 respectively.
Fall chinook counts were smaller, though also building, far upstream at the lower Snake River’s Lower Granite Dam in southeast Washington. Lower Granite is the eighth dam in the Columbia/Snake system that the fish pass. A total of 73 adult fall chinook and 30,354 steelhead had been counted through Wednesday.
Through Aug. 21, a total of 1,949 fall chinook and 7,116 steelhead had made it up and over Priest Rapids dam in the mid-Columbia in central Washington. The dam is the fifth the fish pass on their way to hatcheries and spawning grounds.