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After Waiting Years, Anglers get Chance to Land a Big One

by Jonathan Brinckman
The Oregonian, June 28, 2002

Sport fishing for Columbia River's legendary summer chinook will be allowed today for the first time in 29 years, an outcome brought by higher-then-expected returns of the salmon.

It's a huge event for Oregon anglers. Some remember fishing for Columbia River summer chinook as young adults or teen-agers. And most know of the time, before Grand Coulee Dam was built in 1941, that one run of the hefty salmon was known as "June hogs" -- massive salmon fit for the long haul inland. The "June hog" was so revered that for some the name sticks to this day when summer chinook are discussed.

"The summer chinook fishery closed when I was 23," said Buzz Ramsey, 52, Northwest sales manager for Luhr Jensen and Sons, a Hood River-based manufacturer of fishing lures. "I've only dreamed of catching summer chinook since then." Ramsey planned to be on the water fishing today with his wife and two sons.

The initial forecast was for 77,700 summer chinook to enter the Columbia from June 1 to July 31. By Wednesday, though, with the season less than halfway over, 73,946 adult summer chinook had been counted at Bonneville Dam fish ladders.

"We didn't expect this," said Steve King, salmon fishery manager for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. "I feel really good about opening up a fishery that has been closed for nearly 30 years."

Summer chinook is the largest of the Columbia River's five types of salmon and steelhead. It was once the mainstay of the river's commercial fishing industry. Commercial harvests of summer chinook peaked in the 1880s, when more than two million of the salmon were caught each year. The biggest of the summer chinook, the June hogs, reached nearly 90 pounds. The largest salmon recorded in the Columbia was an 87-pound June hog caught in 1914.

King and other biologists say this run of spring chinook is averaging 20 pounds to 35 pounds, although they say they would not be surprised if an angler caught a spring chinook weighing more than 40 pounds.

Overfishing and the construction of federal dams were devastating to summer chinook. June hogs lost access to their spawning grounds in the upper Columbia River when Grand Coulee Dam was built -- without ladders. Wild Snake River summer chinook, which are part of the Columbia River run, were listed under the Endangered Species Act in 1992. Columbia River summer chinook fell to their lowest level in 1995, when 15,000 of the fish -- hatchery born and wild -- were counted crossing Bonneville Dam.

Summer chinook numbers have been climbing since 1995, however: first to 30,600 in 2000 and then to 76,400 by 2001. Biologists nearly doubled their forecast for 2002 when large numbers of summer chinook began being counted at Bonneville Dam fish ladders.

King and other biologists offer two explanations for the high return of summer chinook, which follows near-record numbers of spring chinook and steelhead this year and last. First, heavy snowpacks and soaking rainfalls made the Columbia River flow cold and fast in 1998 and 1999, giving young salmon a quick and safe ride from their spawning grounds to the ocean. Second, conditions have changed in the ocean, with warm, nutrient-poor waters of the mid-1990s replaced by upwellings of cold nutrient-rich water. That water supports abundant schools of small fishing, giving salmon much to eat.

About 60 percent of the summer chinook returning now come from the three hatcheries in the Columbia Basin that release summer chinook, two in Idaho and one in Washington.

Biologists don't expect the upward trend of Columbia River salmon to continue. In particular, they say, salmon will be hurt by last year's drought, which cut the flow of rivers and streams.

The Bonneville Power Administration, which markets electricity generated at federal dams in the Northwest, made things worse for salmon by sharply reducing spill at dams in order to maximize power production and meet regional demand. The federal salmon recovery plan normally requires that millions of gallons of water be sent over spillways each spring and summer instead of through turbines, which kill and hurt young salmon by subjecting them to impact and rapid pressure changes.

One way to predict the following year's run is by the number of jacks, male salmon that return a year ahead of schedule. This year's spring chinook jack count at Bonneville Dam is 6,400, down from 14,200 last year and 21,300 in 2000.

"Our salmon worries are not over," said Cindy LeFleur, Columbia River harvest manager for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Anglers, though, are preparing to fish for summer chinook. "Everyone I have talked to is just jubilant about this whole thing," Ramsey said. "This is the chance to catch a fish that is legendary."

Chinook are named after the time of year they return to their spawning grounds, with spring chinook first, followed by summer chinook, then fall chinook. Spring chinook spawn in high-elevation streams; fall chinook spawn in the main Snake and Columbia rivers; summer chinook spawn in waterways between the ones used by spring and fall chinook.

Jonathan Brinckman
After Waiting Years, Anglers get Chance to Land a Big One
The Oregonian, June 28, 2002

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