Another Big Columbia
by Allen Thomas
Here is the number anglers have been waiting to learn: An excellent run of 298,900 spring chinook salmon is forecast to enter the Columbia River in 2009 destined for waters upstream of Bonneville Dam.
If accurate, that would be the biggest return since 2002.
Cindy LeFleur, Columbia River policy coordinator for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, said the forecast was developed Monday by a committee including state, federal and tribal biologists.
"Spring chinook are more difficult than some salmonids to develop accurate, specific forecasts," LeFleur said. "We know we had the second-best jack count on record in 2008 and believe this run will be a large one."
Spring chinook are the glory fish of the Columbia. They are exceptional table fare and return to the river in March and April, just as the days are lengthening, warming and sportsmen need a fix after six months of cabin fever.
Long lines and crowded boat ramps are the signature of spring chinook seasons. It's not uncommon to arrive at a boat ramp at 6 a.m. and find the parking lot full.
In 2008, a large fleet of trollers had three weeks of very good success literally underneath the Interstate 5 Bridge.
"It's the most anticipated fishery of the year," said Dan Grogan of Vancouver, president of Fishermen's Marine and Outdoor, a retailer with stores in north Portland and Oregon City. "I get call after call asking what spring chinook looks like."
Good spring salmon fishing fuels healthy sales of tackle and bait. Boat dealers say good spring salmon angling helps spark boat sales in the subsequent 12 months.
"It's the first time you put your boat in the water for the year," Grogan said. "If it gets off to a good start, it helps the whole season. If it's a downer (spring), the rest of the year tends to fall off, or at least start slower."
LeFleur said the prediction was made by comparing the return of jacks (age 3) to age 4 chinook for the 1990 through 2004 brood years and the relationship of age 4 to age 5 spring chinook for the 1990 to 2003 brood years.
Spring chinook management is extremely complicated, as fisheries are structured to harvest from healthy hatchery-origin runs, while protecting wild salmon listed under the federal Endangered Species Act.
Understanding the split of spring chinook harvest between the sport, commercial and tribal fisheries is not easy.
Under the U.S. v. Oregon federal court case, at a run of 298,900, tribal fishermen get an impact rate on wild salmon of 10.8 percent and non-Indians get 2.2 percent. That means no more than 13 percent of the wild portion of the run can be harvested in total.
Tribal fishermen kill wild and hatchery spring chinook, making no harvest distinction.
Non-Indians only keep hatchery fish, which are marked by a clipped adipose fin. Non-Indians use their small allowance of wild fish as catch-and-release mortality while catching and keeping a much larger number of hatchery salmon.
About 70 percent to 80 percent of the Columbia spring chinook are marked by clipped fins.
The Washington and Oregon fish and wildlife commissions begin today and conclude Saturday adopting policies for dividing the non-Indian spring chinook catch between sport and commercial fishermen.
The two panels will meet together at 12:30 p.m. today at the Embassy Suites Portland Airport, 7900 N.E. 82nd Ave. A committee made up of three members of each commission has drafted a sharing recommendation to use for the next several years. No public comment will be accepted today.
On Friday, the Oregon commission will meet in the same location to take public comment and, presumably, make a decision on its spring chinook allocation policy.
On Saturday, the Washington commission will meet beginning at 8:30 a.m. at the Natural Resources Building, 1111 Washington St. S.E., Olympia, to take comment and adopt its policy.
Details of the fishing seasons will be set when state officials meet Jan. 29 in Oregon City.
Forecasts for specific tributaries including the Willamette, Cowlitz, Lewis, and Kalama, rivers will be completed next week.
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