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Rejuvenated Upper Columbia River Coho Allows First Fisheries In 30 Years
Posted on Friday, October 07, 2011 (PST)

Coho salmon fisheries opened Wednesday on the Wenatchee and Methow rivers and Icicle Creek (a tributary to the Wenatchee in central Washington), providing another target for anglers already chasing hatchery chinook salmon and steelhead.


The Icicle River had a small coho fishery in 2009, but the Wenatchee and the Methow rivers have not opened for coho fishing in at least 30 years, according Jeff Korth, north-central region fish manager for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.


With a record return of coho expected to the upper Columbia River system, state fishery managers scheduled coho fisheries through Oct. 31 on all three streams.


Tribal officials now predict 30,000 to 40,000 adult coho will return this year above the mid-Columbia’s Rock Island Dam, which would be a record since counts began at the Chelan County Public Utility District dam in 1977 and more than enough for spawning escapement and hatchery broodstock needs. State officials weighed in with a more conservative estimate of 20,000 adult coho return above Rock Island.


"Coho salmon nearly disappeared from the upper Columbia River in the early 1930s, but they’ve really made a comeback in the past decade," said Korth, crediting re-introduction programs conducted by the Yakama Nation. "This gives anglers fishing for hatchery steelhead and chinook salmon more opportunities to take home some fish."


The YN's Mid-Columbia Coho Restoration Project, launched in 1996, has indeed produced a turnaround for coho salmon, a species that had become functionally extinct in the mid- to upper Columbia by the turn of the century. Between 1993 and 1999 annual adult coho counts at the mid-Columbia’s Rock Island Dam ranged from zero (in 1996 and 1998) to 18 during an extreme swoon. Between 1977 when and 1993 counts rarely exceeded 1,000, according to annual return data posted online by the Fish Passage Center.


But by 2000 the coho supplementation program began to kick in. The count that year at Rock Island before was 1,624 and was followed by a count of 10,465 in 2001. Rock Island, at river mile 453.4, is the seventh and final hydro project the fish pass on their trip from the Pacific Ocean before turning into the Wenatchee River. Hatchery produced coho acclimated at riverside in the Methow River basin still have to swim over Rocky Reach and Wells dams before reaching their spawning grounds.


Since a Rock Island count of 1,750 in 2002, there hasn’t been an annual count of less than 5,597. The record was 19,805 in 2009, according to the FPC.


The 2011 run is just starting to make its way upstream. The count at Rock island was 10,096 through Wednesday and recent daily counts have been on the rise. Thursday’s count was 822.


And more fish are on their way. McNary Dam, the third dam downstream, had a count of 27,315 adult coho through Wednesday.


“And we’re not at the peak yet,” said Tom Scribner, project manager for the tribe. During that record run in 2009 about 500 fish that had been outfitted with PIT tags as juveniles by the tribe were detected at the lower Columbia River’s Bonneville Dam on their way upriver to spawn. This year, already more than 900 have been detected, Scribner said.


He uses that PIT-tag data in-season to help estimate how many fish will make it back to the mid-Columbia and its tributaries. The same number of smolts are tagged each year, and the same number of fish overall are released each year.


When the fish return, a certain number of the adult fish trapped by Yakama Nation biologists and spawned in the hatchery to produce the next generation.


About 1.1 million coho smolts that are raised at south-central Washington’s Willard National Fish Hatchery and the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife's Cascade Hatchery are released each year by the tribe after final rearing and acclimation in the Methow and Wenatchee drainages.


The coho fisheries this year and last “are a direct result of our program,” Scribner said.


Steelhead fishing is currently open on the Wenatchee, Methow and Icicle rivers with a daily limit of two hatchery fish per day. Anglers fishing the Wenatchee River may retain two adult hatchery chinook salmon per day, including one wild chinook. 


Areas opening to coho fishing Oct. 5 include:  


-- Wenatchee River from its mouth of the Wenatchee River up to the mouth of Icicle. Anglers should be aware that the upper boundary of the coho fishery on the Wenatchee River is downstream from the boundary for the chinook and steelhead fisheries.


Icicle Creek from the mouth to 500 feet downstream of the Leavenworth National Fish Hatchery Barrier Dam.


-- Methow River from its mouth to the confluence with the Chewuch River in Winthrop. Fishing from a floating device is prohibited from the second powerline crossing to the first Highway 153 Bridge.  


On all those rivers, anglers can catch up to three coho salmon -- with or without an intact adipose fin - in addition to the catch limits for other species. Coho must measure at least 12 inches to be retained. 


Selective gear rules and a night closure will be in effect to help protect wild steelhead, some of which are protected under the federal Endangered Species Act.


"By law, all fisheries in these areas must close immediately if the allowable incidental impact to wild steelhead is reached," Korth said. 


Anglers also will be required to release any coho fitted with a floy (anchor) tag and those with one or more round quarter-inch holes punched in their caudal (tail) fin. Motorized vessels are not allowed on the Wenatchee or Icicle rivers under Chelan County ordinances. 


To participate in these fisheries, anglers must possess a valid fishing license and a Columbia River Salmon/Steelhead Endorsement. Revenue from the endorsement supports salmon or steelhead seasons on many rivers in the Columbia River system, including enforcing fishery regulations and monitoring the upper Columbia River steelhead fisheries. The endorsement has generated more than $1 million annually for WDFW to maintain and increase fishing opportunities throughout the Columbia River Basin.


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