More than 100 boats were counted on the lower Columbia River one day in late February but only five salmon were caught (two fin-clipped hatchery fish were reeled in and kept and three chinook were released) during the week ending Feb. 26, according to the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. A total of total of 291 boat anglers, and 201 sportsmen fishing from the river bank, were counted during the week on the lower river.
Only a single adult chinook had passed Bonneville Dam this year through Tuesday. The majority of the run each year is made up of upriver spring chinook bound for hatcheries and tributary spawning areas above Bonneville, which is located at river mile 146.
By late March – when the return numbers have swelled – fishery officials expect more than 2,000 boats per day on the lower Columbia mainstem.
“At first, the fish usually arrive in fits and starts, then eventually start moving upriver in a steady flow,” said Joe Hymer, a fish biologist for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. “Through March, we expect to see the number of boat and bank anglers on the river to increase week by week.”
According to the pre-season forecast, 314,200 upriver fish are expected to return to the Columbia River this year, which would be the fourth-largest spring chinook run on a record dating back to 1964. The sport fishery below Bonneville Dam is scheduled to run through April 6, but could be extended if enough fish are available for harvest.
The preseason forecast also anticipates 100,300 lower Columbia spring chinook return to such tributaries as the Willamette, Cowlitz, Sandy, Lewis and Kalama and so-called off-channel “select areas.” The select areas are sites where hatchery fish get their final rearing as juveniles in net pens.
Chinook passage at Bonneville has been late-timed for six of the past ten years (2002-2011) with the 50 percent passage date ranging from April 24 to May 12 and averaging May 6.
Harvest guidelines adopted by the two states will allow anglers fishing below Bonneville Dam to catch and keep up to 14,500 hatchery-reared spring chinook before the run forecast is updated in May.
Last year an estimated 221,200 adult upriver spring chinook and 99,700 lower river fish entered the mouth of the Columbia. The estimated sport catch, during a season that was cut short in mid-April, then reopened in mid-May. The final sport catch in the recreational fishery during February 1 through June 15, 2011 was 14,848 adult spring chinook (11,694 hatchery chinook kept and 3,154 unclipped fish released), 5,542 adipose fin-clipped spring chinook jacks (kept), and 4,397 steelhead (3,395 adipose fin-clipped hatchery fish kept and 1,002 unclipped fish released) from 154,895 angler trips, according to data compiled by the Oregon and Washington departments of fish and wildlife.
The upriver spring chinook catch was 11,889 adult fish (9,241 kept and 2,649 released) with 9,506 kept catch plus release mortalities.
As in years past, only hatchery-reared spring chinook marked with a clipped adipose fin may be retained. Any unmarked wild spring chinook must be released unharmed.
For more information about other fishing, hunting and wildlife-watching opportunities in March, see the WDFW’s Weekender Regional Reports at http://wdfw.wa.gov/weekender/ .
Cindy LeFleur, WDFW Columbia River policy manager, said this year’s spring chinook sport fishery looks promising, especially compared to last season.
“Not only is this year’s run forecast well above average, but fishing conditions should be a lot better than last year when anglers had to contend with weeks of high, turbid water,” LeFleur said. River flows so far this winter have been average.
Spring chinook fishing is currently open to boat and bank anglers on a daily basis from Buoy 10 near the mouth of the Columbia River upstream to the Interstate 5 bridge between Portland and Vancouver at river mile 106.5. Starting March 1, the sport fishery will expand upriver to Beacon Rock, which is located four miles downstream of Bonneville, and run through April 6. During that period, the sport fishery will close on three Tuesdays – March 20, March 27 and April 3 – to accommodate commercial fisheries.
Starting March 1, bank anglers will also be allowed to fish from Beacon Rock up to the fishing boundary below Bonneville Dam.
Above Bonneville Dam, the fishery will be open to boat and bank anglers on a daily basis from March 16 through May 2 between the Tower Island powerlines six miles below The Dalles Dam and the Washington/Oregon state line, 17 miles upriver from McNary Dam. Bank anglers can also fish from Bonneville Dam upriver to the powerlines during that time.
Starting March 1, anglers fishing downriver from Bonneville Dam may retain one marked hatchery-reared adult spring chinook as part of their daily catch limit. Above the dam, anglers can keep two marked adult spring chinook per day effective March 16.
To guard against overestimating this year’s run, the states will again manage the fisheries with a 30 percent buffer until there is more certainty about the actual run-size. The return forecast is updated in late April or early May after approximately half of the upriver run has passed over Bonneville. Until then harvests will be managed to assure no more than 70 percent of the catch allocation, which is based on that preseason forecast, is taken.
Fishery managers from Washington and Oregon have already scheduled a meeting April 5 to review the catch and determine if the season can be extended. If the catch to that point has not reached the initial harvest guideline, the two states will consider an immediate extension, said LeFleur, the WDFW fishery manager.
Effective March 1 through May 15, the mainstem Columbia River will be open for retention of shad, but only on days and in areas open for retention of adipose fin-clipped spring chinook.
The Cowlitz River is currently open to fishing for spring chinook, with a daily limit of two adult chinook salmon. On the Kalama and Lewis rivers, the limit is one adult chinook salmon per day. Above Bonneville, the Wind River and Drano Lake are scheduled to open for spring chinook March 16 with a limit of two chinook per day.
Hymer said fishing for winter hatchery steelhead is still going strong, particularly on the Cowlitz and Kalama rivers, noting that summer-run steelhead will start coming in right behind them later in the month.
In other waters, Washington anglers should be aware that March 15 is the last day to fish for steelhead on Abernathy, Cedar (Clark Co.), Germany, Mill (Cowlitz Co.), Rock (Skamania Co.), Salmon (Clark Co.) creeks and on the Coweeman, Elochoman, Grays, East Fork Lewis and Washougal rivers.
Oregon and Washington fishery managers met Monday to consider the approval of a lower Columbia mainstem commercial fishery, but they decided to wait at least another week given the relative lack of spring chinook in the river, and the presence of goodly numbers of winter steelhead, which are protected under the Endangered Species Act.
Test fishing conducted Feb. 26 in the lower river both large mesh gear and smaller mesh “tangle nets” resulted in the handle of five chinook and 11 steelhead over the course of 16 drifts.
The number of upriver spring chinook (kept plus release mortalities) available to the mainstem commercial fishery prior to a run size update is 5,914 fish. An additional 9,600 Willamette spring chinook are available to commercial fisheries for the 2012 spring season. Upriver catch limitations generally restrict access to the commercial Willamette allocation.
Test commercial fishing is scheduled again on March 4.
Meanwhile, sturgeon fisheries below Bonneville Dam will be further constrained for the third straight year. Responding to the continued decline of sturgeon abundance below the dam, fishery managers adopted fishing regulations designed to reduce the catch by 9,600 fish – a 38 percent reduction from last year.
That action follows a 30 percent catch reduction in 2011 and a 40 percent reduction in 2010.
“This year’s sturgeon fishery will be opening later or closing earlier on various sections of the river,” LeFleur said. “Anglers should check this year’s fishing rules carefully before they head out.”
Monitoring data jointly collected by Washington and Oregon indicate that the abundance of legal-size white sturgeon has declined by nearly 50 percent since 2003. Factors often cited for the decline include increased predation by sea lions and a drop in the abundance of smelt and lamprey, which contribute to sturgeons’ diet.
To keep this year’s catch within the new harvest guideline, the sturgeon fishery will end 23 days earlier than last year in the estuary below the Wauna powerlines and start eight days later in the fall from the powerlines upriver to Bonneville Dam. Fishing seasons approved for 2012 in the lower Columbia River are as follows:
Buoy 10 to the Wauna powerlines: Retention of white sturgeon is allowed daily from Jan. 1 through April 30 and from May 12 through July 8. From Jan. 1 through April 30, sturgeon must measure between 38 inches and 54 inches (fork length) to be retained. From May 12 through the end of the season they must measure 41 inches to 54 inches (fork length) to be retained. Catch-and-release fishing is allowed on days when retention is prohibited.
Wauna powerlines to Bonneville Dam: Retention of white sturgeon is allowed three days per week (Thursday through Saturday) from Jan. 1 through July 31 and from Oct. 20 through Dec. 31. Sturgeon must measure between 38 inches and 54 inches (fork length) to be retained. Catch-and-release fishing is allowed on days when retention is prohibited.
Sport fishing for sturgeon will be closed from May 1 through Aug. 31 in the nine-mile sturgeon sanctuary downriver from Bonneville Dam described in the Fishing in Washington rules pamphlet. Sand Island Slough near Rooster Rock also will be closed to fishing at least through April 30.
As in years past, 80 percent of the allowable catch will be allocated to the sport fishery and 20 percent to the commercial fishery. Under the new harvest rate, the portion of the catch available to recreational fisheries will be allocated as follows: up to 4,160 fish in the estuary, up to 2,080 above Wauna and between 1,768 and 2,022 in the Willamette River (actual catch was 1,535 fish in the two day season).
Unlike the lower river, legal-size sturgeon populations appear to be growing above Bonneville Dam, said Brad James, a WDFW fish biologist. This year’s harvest guidelines for sturgeon fisheries above the dam remained the same as last year – 2,000 fish in Bonneville Pool, 300 in The Dalles Pool, and 500 in John Day Pool. Over half the Bonneville Pool guideline was reserved for the summer season as the first retention period closed Feb. 18.