Anglers intent on filling their freezer with salmon might be advised, strangely enough, to head for a place that not long ago was largely barren of fall chinook.
Beginning Sept. 1 people fishing the strip of lower Snake River from where it hits the Idaho-Washington border upstream along state lines to the Hells Canyon Dam can take home up to six adipose fin clipped adult fall chinook salmon daily.
And there’s no limit on the harvest of fin-clipped jacks -- young, mostly male, fish that return after only one year of growth in the Pacific Ocean. Fully mature fall chinook spend at least two years at sea before returning to spawn.
As recently as 1996 only 1,067 fall chinook salmon were counted crossing the lower Snake River’s Lower Granite Dam in southeast Washington. And in two decades prior to that, the count at the dam, the eighth the fish must pass on their spawning journey, reached 1,000 only once. The Snake River fall chinook stock in 1991 was listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.
The naturally produced Snake River fall chinook remain listed, but their population levels have been increasing due to a variety of factors ranging from man-made improvements to hydro system passage and operations to, at times, favorable ocean conditions.
Hatchery operations instituted over the past decade or so have contributed to a general inflation in the number of fall chinook heading upstream to the lower Snake and a tributary, the Clearwater River. The fall chinook count at Lower Granite in 2010 was 41,815, which was the most by far on a record dating back to 1975. The previous high was 16,628 in 2008.
More than 35,000 fall chinook salmon are predicted to pass the Lower Granite Dam this year, according to Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife fishery managers.
So, for the second straight year Oregon anglers will be allow to pull clipped fall chinook from the river in the reaches along the Oregon-Idaho border. Idaho fishers can take advantage of a slightly longer stretch of river, from the point the Snake hits the Idaho-Washington border at Lewiston-Clarkson up to Hells Canyon. Lewiston is about 39 river miles upstream from Lower Granite.
A certain portion of the fall chinook passing Lower Granite turn off just past the head of the reservoir into the Clearwater, which joins the Snake at Lewiston. They include both hatchery and wild fish.
The majority, both wild and hatchery, continue on to points upriver. Many of the hatchery fish were acclimated at sites on the lower Snake before their release as part of supplementation efforts, while others are released simply to fuel fisheries.
The acclimated or supplementation fish are produced with the goal of kindling natural spawning. A combination of wild and hatchery-produced combined to do just that last year. An annual survey of the Snake and Clearwater counted a total of 5,626 falls chinook spawning nests or redds, which was 1,910 more than the previous record set in 2009. The Nez Perce Tribe guides the supplementation program.
The annual redd surveys were conducted by biologists from the Idaho Power Company, Nez Perce Tribe, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. It was the 23rd year that intensive aerial surveys have been conducted in the Snake River and most of its major tributaries above Lower Granite and the 19th year for ground surveys in tributaries downstream of the southeast Washington dam.
With fisheries offered after 20 years of abstinence, state officials and anglers are learning anew how to fish the lower Snake reaches to harvest marked hatchery fish. Last year the bag limit was one adult fish.
Roughly half of the acclimation fish are fin clipped. All of the hatchery fish produced specifically for harvest are clipped. Those hatchery fish include fall chinook produced for Idaho Power Company that are released directly into the Snake from the boat ramp just below Hells Canyon Dam.
IPC owns the Hells Canyon Complex of three hydro projects. The lower most is Hells Canyon Dam, located at Snake River river mile 247, which is 140 miles upstream of Lower Granite Dam. The company funds the production, at its Oxbow Hatchery in Oregon operated by the IDFG and at the ODFW’s Umatilla Hatchery, of up to 1 million juvenile fish as mitigation for dam impacts on salmon populations. That total is part of the overall production target for Snake and Clearwater of 5.9 million fall chinook.
“We both (Idaho and Oregon) want to provide the opportunity for people to learn that fishery,” the ODFW’s Jeff Yanke said. The large bag limit is mainly because it is expected to be a large run with a relatively large jack component. The idea is to harvest as many of the marked hatchery fish, which are headed to a dead end at Hells Canyon, as possible. The dam blocks fish access to the upper Snake.
Oregon anglers will be able to fish seven-days-a week concurrent with the annual Hell’s Canyon steelhead fishery. The river will be open until Oct. 31, or until a closure is announced. Licensed Idahoans can fish during the same time frame in the lower Snake. They can also take fall chinook Sept. 1-Oct. 31 in the Clearwater River from its mouth upstream to the U.S. Highway 12 Memorial Bridge.
The daily bag limit is six adipose fin-clipped adult fall chinook salmon. Adult salmon are classified as being 24 inches or longer.
“We recognize that a six-fish bag limit is unusual, but the large amount of hatchery surplus fish available creates a great opportunity for anglers to catch these fish,” said Yanke, ODFW district fish biologist in Enterprise.
Anglers can also keep jack chinook salmon with no daily, possession, or season limits, but only jacks with a clipped adipose fin may be kept.
Only barbless hooks may be used in the lower Snake fisheries. Anglers are reminded to consult the Oregon or Idaho sport fishing regulations for other applicable regulations.
Hells Canyon Dam is the farthest Snake River fall chinook will travel in Oregon, having migrated over 800 miles and passed eight mainstem dams. And despite that long journey, the fish arrive in pretty good shape.
“They’re in eating condition,” Yanke said. “That doesn’t last all season but for a part of the season they’re in good eating condition.”
The chinooks’ bodily condition deteriorates as they near the end of their life cycle. The Snake River fish typically spawn in November.
The WDFW also announced Thursday that the retention of fall chinook will also be allowed in the stretch of river upstream from the mouth of the Snake River, beginning at the south bound lanes of the Highway 12 Bridge (near Pasco) to the Oregon state line (located approximately 7 miles upstream of the mouth of the Grande Ronde River). That opening is also for Sept. 1 through Oct.31, 2011.
The bag limit there will be three adipose fin-clipped fall chinook adults (24 inches in length and larger), and three adipose fin-clipped jack fall chinook (less than 24 inches). Minimum size for chinook that can be retained in the Snake River is 12 inches.
Anglers in that section of the Snake in Washington must stop fishing for salmon and steelhead for the day once they have retained three hatchery steelhead (regardless of whether the salmon daily limit has been retained).