For eight years and counting, the timing of the annual surge of spring chinook up the Columbia River has lagged behind previous experience.
And the hope this year for fishers and fish conservationists is that that trend is continuing, since the number of upriver spring chinook passing over Bonneville Dam through March 27 has totaled only 33 adult fish.
That’s the second lowest during this slow-start period that began in about 2005, when only 30 fish had passed the dam by that date. Fish totals through March 27 during this period have ranged between 14 and 274 springers.
In 2003, in comparison, a total of 634 spring chinook were counted passing Bonneville’s fish ladders on March 27 alone, with a cumulative count of 11,068 through that date.
The preseason forecast developed by federal, state and tribal officials anticipates a return to the mouth of the Columbia River of 314,200 adult upriver spring chinook this year. That would be the fourth-largest run on record. Upriver spring chinook are fish bound for spawning grounds and hatcheries upstream of Bonneville, which is located 146 river miles from the river’s mouth at the Pacific Ocean.
The actual returns of upriver spring chinook to the mouth of the river have from 2005 through 2011 have ranged from a high of 315,300 in 2010 to as few as 86,200 in 2007.
Hatchery-reared spring chinook returning to the Cowlitz, Lewis, Willamette and other tributaries below Bonneville Dam will also contribute to the number of fish available for harvest. Overall, the forecast return to the mouth of the Columbia is 414,500 spring chinook.
The slowest start to the upriver spring chinook return, at least in recent history, was in 2006 when only 14 fish had passed Bonneville through March 27.
During 2006-2010, the average peak counts and 50 percent (of the season’s total) passage dates at Bonneville Dam have been around 10-days later than the 1980-2005 average.
The 2011 return followed the late timing trend observed for six of the past seven years. The peak count occurred on May 1, followed six days later by 50 percent passage completion date on May 7 (compared to the historical average of April 29).
After a couple of months of slow fishing for spring chinook salmon, fishery managers from Washington and Oregon are set to decide whether to extend the initial season on the lower Columbia River beyond April 6.
The decision on whether to prolong the early-season spring chinook fishery is scheduled to be made during a scheduled April 5 joint-state hearing. The results will be reported on the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife’s website and on the department’s Fishing Hotline (360-902-2500).
“Like last year, the spring chinook run has been late to arrive – and for many of the same reasons,” said Joe Hymer, a WDFW fish biologist.
“It’s a degree and a half cooler than normal,” Hymer said of lower Columbia water temperatures so far this year. Temperature is considered a key cue for fish preparing to make their run upriver to spawn. Last year a bountiful snowpack and above average spring precipitation kept the river running high and cold late into the season.
“Not only has the Columbia been running high and cold, but all that rain in recent weeks has muddied up the water below the Willamette and Cowlitz rivers,” Hymer said.
Another potential reason the run is slow to build momentum is that the bulk of this year’s return is expected to be 4-year-olds, which arrive a bit later, Hymer said.
Those conditions are clearly reflected in the catch. Through March 25, an estimated 42,600 anglers had caught only 1,176 of the spring chinook available for harvest through April 6. Of that number, about 800 were upriver salmon that count toward the 12,700-fish harvest guideline for the first leg of the fishery.
Despite what has been a relatively low catch rate, anglers have had some nice surprises.
“We’re seeing nice healthy fish, into the 30s,” Hymer said of husky, 5-year-old catches that have weighed in at 30 pounds or more.
To guard against overestimating this year’s run, the states are managing spring chinook fisheries to assure that no more than 70 percent of the overall non-tribal allocation of upriver fish is caught prior to the time that the run-size forecast is updated in late April or early May. Whatever they decide about extending the sport fishery in early April, they will also consider reopening the fishery after the run update.
Hymer reminds anglers that all 2011-2012 Washington state fishing licenses expire at midnight March 31. To keep fishing, anglers age 15 and older must purchase a 2012-13 license and a Columbia River Salmon and Steelhead Endorsement. Licenses and permits are available online, by phone (1-866-246-9453) and from sporting goods stores and other retail license dealers around the state.
Through April 6, anglers fishing downriver from Bonneville Dam may retain one marked, hatchery-reared adult spring chinook as part of their daily catch limit. Anglers should note that the sport fishery will be closed April 3 to accommodate a possible commercial fishery.
Above Bonneville Dam, the fishery is open to boat and bank anglers on a daily basis 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.
Anglers fishing above Bonneville Dam can keep two marked adult spring chinook per day.
The mainstem Columbia River is also open for retention of shad through May 15 on days and in areas open for retention of adipose fin-clipped spring chinook.