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Fishing Picks Up
But Wait for the Big Fall Run Continues

by Barry Espenson
Columbia Basin Bulletin - August 27, 2004

Tribal and non-tribal Columbia River mainstem commercial fishers are hoping that the past few days of changed weather will trigger the migration urges of adult fall chinook that have begun to enter the river but have yet to surge upstream en masse.

Daytime air temperatures on the lower river changed drastically over the past weekend (Aug. 21-22), dropping from the 80s to the high 60s in many areas. Additionally much of the region has been washed by rains, another factor that may help cool river waters. Some fishers and fish managers believe that tepid waters may be stalling the upriver migration. Temperatures during the week of Aug. 8-17 ranged from 72-74 degrees in the forebay at Bonneville Dam. A more typical range for that time of year is 70-71 degrees.

Bonneville Dam is the first hydro project migrating salmon and steelhead must hurdle on their way to hatcheries and spawning grounds in the Columbia/Snake system.

A large fall chinook return to the mouth of the Columbia River is expected -- 634,900 adults in all or the fifth largest since 1948. The largest was last year, an adult return of 893,200. This year's preseason forecast includes 287,000 upriver brights, including 6,100 Snake River wild fall chinook that are protected under the Endangered Species Act. It also includes 88,800 Mid-Columbia brights and 150,000 Bonneville pool hatchery tules. A large majority of the upriver brights are bound for the Mid-Columbia's Hanford Reach.

But while fishing at the river mouth has picked up considerably in recent weeks, the fall chinook counts at Bonneville remain a relative trickle, ranging from 412 to 848 daily during the week ending Aug. 23. The dam may be ready to burst, however. Wednesday's count topped 1,000 for the first time -- 1,153. And Thursday's count leaped to 5,075 adult fall chinook.

The Columbia River Compact on Aug. 20 set mainstem commercial seasons for both non-tribal gill-netters and tribal fishers. The Compact is made up of Steve Williams and Bill Tweit, representatives respectively of the Oregon and Washington departments of fish and wildlife.

Non-tribal fishers had scheduled 12-hour outings Monday and Wednesday nights on the mainstem from Washington's Lewis River upstream to Bonneville Dam. Fishery management agreements allow them the entire 140-mile stretch of river from the mouth to the dam but the Compact limited fishing to the upper 53 miles to assure that the fisheries do not take too big of a bite out of the run when it does begin to move upriver. Catches are limited in order to protect the ESA listed portion of the run.

ODFW and WDFW staff estimated that the non-tribal catch could total as many as 7,000 chinook. Six nights' fishing earlier in August netted a total of 6,280 fish. Fishing was allowed in all six lower mainstem "zones" during the first four nights out, with the lowermost zone closed for the two most recent fisheries, and zones 1 and 2 closed for the most recent. Only zones 4 and 5 were open this week.

This week's catch estimate maybe become twisted by a couple of factors -- high water temperatures and relatively high fish prices, according to Patrick Frazier of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.

The temperatures "may actually slow your catch to some extent. The fish aren't moving quite as well as they have in recent years," Frazier said. He noted that as the water temperatures rose the previous week the success of the lower river gill-netters declined.

But "prices are higher for salmon so you might have more effort," Frazier said.

Les Clark, a commercial fisherman for 51 years, said that early season prices for upriver brights have been about $1.75 per pound as compared to 75 cents a year ago. Tules are bringing 25 cents per pound as compared to 15 cents a year ago.

"And demand is good," Clark said. And the price for sturgeon caught during the fisheries is stable with a growing demand.

The Compact considered a staff recommendation to cut off the harvest of sturgeon, but eventually allowed a five-sturgeon per boat allowance. The lower river gill netters had through Aug. 17 caught 4,181 white sturgeon -- very near a 4,400 allocation for the winter/summer seasons. The goal was to preserve 3,600 of the overall 8,000 allocation for the late fall season.

But fishers were willing to risk using up a share of the late fall allocation.

"I think there needs to be some in there to keep up the fresh fish sales," Clark said.

"It would be a tragedy if we didn't have any to supply to them," said fisherman Chris Heuker. Likewise the salmon pipeline needs to remain open.

"Every major city in the country has Columbia River salmon," Heuker said of recent marketing successes.

Williams said he felt that the upriver fall chinook run was "stacking up" in the lower part of the river while awaiting better migrating conditions. Sport angling at Buoy 10 has improved greatly with one chinook being caught for every three rods during the week ending Aug. 22. The catch estimate for the first week of August was one chinook per 20 rods.

Through Aug.22, an estimated 26,248 angler trips to buoy 10 have produced 7,721 chinook and 3,849 coho. Pre-season modeling forecasted a total catch of 11,600 chinook for that time period.

The Compact approved four separate mainstem commercial fisheries for the Nez Perce, Umatilla, Warm Springs and Yakama tribes. They fish in the reservoirs above Bonneville. The first fishery is a 2 -day stint that ends at 6 p.m. Friday, Aug. 27. Tribal fisheries are also scheduled in each of the following three weeks.

Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission biologist Stuart Ellis told the Compact that the tribes anticipated a catch of as many as 21,400 chinook during the first opening, with 10,800 being upriver brights. Bright impacts are monitored because their number includes the listed Snake River stock. That catch estimate assumes the timely arrival of the fish and the deployment of as many as 400 nets, up from the 360 actually deployed last year.

Ellis called the catch estimates "somewhat generous," meaning effort and catch would not likely reach those levels.

On Aug. 1, the counts of chinook at Bonneville changed from "summer" to "fall chinook" and will be designated as such through the remainder of the fish counting season. Through Aug. 19, adult fall chinook appear to be passing satisfactorily as 12,619 have been counted compared to 13,289 in 2003 and 10,765 for the 10-year average.

Last year's huge run too rippled along with Bonneville counts of fewer than 1,000 until bouncing to 1,502 on Aug. 25. The next day's count rose to 4,460 followed by more than 8,000 adult fall chinook on Aug. 27. The daily counts did not dip below 8,000 again until Sept. 22, 2003 with peaks of 40,000 fish passing each day Sept. 11-14.

The past three years total fall chinook counts at Bonneville were 400,410 in 2001, 474,554 in 2002 and 610,336 last year. The next highest count since 1977 was 336,950 fall chinook adults in 1987. The lowest was 113,270 in 1983.

At Bonneville, the steelhead run totaled 168,435 through Aug. 19. That's about 79 percent and 103 percent of the respective 2003 and 10-year average, according to the Fish Passage Center's weekly report. Few of them, however, are moving upriver. Only 43,806 had been counted at The Dalles Dam -- the next hydro project upstream from Bonneville -- through Aug. 23.

Steelhead passage in the Snake River decreased from the preceding week with daily counts that were between 129 and 254 at Ice Harbor Dam, and a season total of 15,736 through Aug. 19. In the Mid-Columbia River, steelhead counts at Priest Rapids Dam averaged 75 per day, a decrease from the previous week. The total steelhead count there is about 5,800 for the season.

Warm water temperatures remain present in the lower Columbia River, and a portion of the fish bound for upriver sites are residing in someof the backwater areas and tributaries in the Bonneville pool as these rivers and streams have cooler water temperatures than the mainstem Columbia River, according to the FPC report. Once past The Dalles Dam, additional steelhead hold in the Deschutes River as it also has cooler water temperatures than the main Columbia River.

Barry Espenson
Fishing Picks Up But Wait for the Big Fall Run Continues
Columbia Basin Bulletin, August 27, 2004

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