It was up and at ‘em before first light Wednesday for Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife fishery biologists Jeff Neal and Brent Smith, who are among those monitoring the first sport fishery in 36 years on wild spring chinook salmon in the John Day River in the north-central part of the state.
It’s also, officials think, the only fishery in recent times on unmarked spring chinook salmon in the entire Columbia-Snake River basin.
The department this week announced that a 20-mile stretch of the river near Kimberly will open for spring chinook from May 23 through Sunday, June 3.
Naturally produced Columbia River basin spring stocks are for the most part protected under the Endangered Species Act as members of either the Snake River or the Upper Columbia River “evolutionarily significant unit” – groupings of geographically and genetically linked populations.
The wild John Day River spring chinook are a rarity in that they have, despite population setbacks, managed to avoid an ESA listing and have persevered without any help from hatchery stocks.
The opening of the season marks a major milestone in the rebound of wild spring chinook populations in the John Day. Chinook returns have exceeded subbasin goals for the past three years and biologists predict another high return this year, according to Jeff Neal, ODFW district fish biologist in John Day.
“It’s in our subbasin plan that if we have a recovered population for three years in a row we’ll have a fishery in the fourth year” of expected continued prosperity, Neal said. This year’s fishery is the fulfillment of a “promise” made during recovery planning that dates back to 1980, Neal said.
Since the population is almost exclusively wild and naturally produced, there is little opportunity to monitor comings and goings as is done with many -- most – other Columbia-Snake river salmon populations. The goal has been to reach the point that at least 200 redds or nests are produced each year by spawners in the mainstem John Day.
“We’ve gone over that in a lot of years” in recent times, but not in three consecutive years, Neal said. The threshold was reached in 2004 and 2005 and 2007, as an example, but not in 2006.
“The last three years it’s just gone through the roof,” Neal said. The 2011 estimate is 638 redds in the mainstem, and 1,787 for the entire system, which includes the mainstem and middle, south and north forks. The projection for 2012 is at least 250 redds on the mainstem.
Since none of the fish are marked, or fin-clipped, and only about 4,000 of the emerging juveniles are outfitted with electronic tags, the population’s ebbs and flows are charted largely through those redd surveys – assessments of the number of nests built by spawning fish – and estimations of the number of spawned out spring chinook washed up on the river banks.
The population ebbed in the 1970s, coincidental with the late 1960s completion of John Day Dam, which converted that section of the Columbia River from river to reservoir. Other factors, such as land use practices and irrigation withdrawals were judged to be a large factor in the decline.
“The comeback of this wild salmon population was made possible by all the fish habitat and passage work that landowners, particularly on upper mainstem John Day, have done,” Neal said.
The spawning area on the mainstem is limited to about 12 river miles, “but we have a huge rearing area” for young fish, Neal said.
“That’s made possible by irrigators” who have through the years worked with the state and others to provide passage for young fish at water diversion points, Neal said.
“It’s made a huge difference for juvenile fish to expand their rearing area,” he said.
He said that fish managers have for nearly 30 years been talking with landowners in the John Day mainstem about making land management improvements such as providing passage and fencing riparian areas “and they have always said they wanted to help bring the fish back,” Neal said.
The fruit of habitat restoration efforts implemented in recent years are going to take longer to be realized, but the benefits when achieved should continue indefinitely, Neal said.
Adult spawning has also branched out to include four tributary streams. In all, the John Day basin includes some 2,500 miles of fish-bearing rivers and creeks.
The river will be open to fishing for spring chinook from the Longview Ranch’s Johnson Creek Division bridge (about 200 feet upstream of the mouth of the North Fork John Day) upstream to the mouth of Rattlesnake Creek (near the south end of Picture Gorge), which is amidst the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument, Sheep Creek Unit. Neal said the open fishing area starts about 184 river miles upstream from where the John Day flows into the Columbia along the Oregon-Washington border.
The daily bag limit is two adult chinook salmon and five jack salmon; it is unlawful to continue fishing for jacks after taking a daily bag limit of two adult chinook salmon.
ODFW will be conducting a creel survey during the fishery to help determine angler effort and success, and any possible impact on other fish such as bull trout or steelhead. In addition to contacting anglers in the open area, ODFW will have a check station on weekends and randomly selected weekdays to gain additional biological information from harvested fish. All anglers are encouraged to stop by the check station before leaving the area.
Neal said that the agency had not set a hard-and-fast catch limit for the season, but would like to see no more than 100 harvested.
The John Day River joins the Columbia from the southeast approximately 16 miles northeast of Biggs, Ore., entering Lake Umatilla. The reservoir is formed by John Day Dam, located about two miles downstream from the mouth of the John Day.
Neal said Thursday that a first-day creel survey turned up one harvested spring chinook out of 12 anglers sampled. He thought the total harvest, including unsampled catch, wouldn’t have totaled more than two fish Wednesday.
The main fork flows initially north out of the Strawberry Mountains, then west through the John Day Valley. It is joined near Dayville, Ore., by the South Fork. At Kimberly it is joined by the North Fork, which has already been supplemented by the Middle Fork.