Tribes, Recreational Anglers Gear Up for Strong Seasonby Mike Lee, Herald staff writer
Tri-City Herald, April 20, 2001
At the edge of the lower Yakima River, Bobby Tahmalwash Jr.'s shoes dried in the morning sun as he watched the shrinking river rush past his newly built fishing platform.
The ungainly collection of roped-together logs and plywood juts 50 feet into the river. Every piece of scaffolding seems to join at odd angles with the next. At the waterline, logs are gnawed smooth by a beaver who visits at night.
But the makeshift structure holds Tahmalwash, plus at least 30 pounds of wriggling spring chinook salmon.
The one he caught a few days ago, his first of the season, marked a momentous event. For years, Tahmalwash, 34, hasn't bothered to return to the Yakama Nation's ancient fishing grounds northwest of Richland near Horn Rapids Park.
"It felt good to catch one," said Tahmalwash, while a skillet of canned corned beef hash cooked over a dying fire. "I haven't had that feeling of getting one in the net for quite a while."
The feeling should become more familiar over the next several weeks, when more than 26,000 mostly wild spring chinook are expected to swim up the Yakima River during the largest run of springers since counting began at Bonneville Dam in 1938.
"If we get that, it will be as good as it gets," said Jim Cummins, state biologist in Yakima.
Thursday, the Columbia River run forecast was increased by 60,000 to 433,000 spring chinook. Projected tribal harvest on the Yakima is 3,500 fish, and tribal fishermen have been erecting platforms in anticipation at Prosser, Sunnyside and Wapato.
"We are expecting them any day," said Arnold Barney, Yakama Nation fishery monitor, whose job is to track all the fish caught in his black binder. When they hit, he said, "We'll be scribbling like mad."
Already this spring, more than 56,000 chinook have crossed McNary Dam -- by the thousands in recent days. The majority are headed up the Snake River toward Idaho, prompting the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife to seek a spring chinook fishing season near Clarkston.
"It would be the first time fishing (for spring chinook) in -- holy cow -- 30-plus years since the dams went in," said Madonna Luers, spokeswoman for the state fish agency.
While a lower Snake River season still hasn't received federal approval, anglers will have other choices in the Mid-Columbia. The sport season opens Saturday on the Yakima River and at the Ringold hatchery on the Columbia River. For details and restrictions, go to www.wa.gov/wdfw/do/weekendr/weekendr.
htm#region3 on the Internet.
The Yakima season, open to anglers between Granger and near the Roza Dam, is expected to run through June 15. Catching steelhead -- still on the endangered species list -- is prohibited.
At Ringold, the bank-only fishery opens a month earlier than usual to take advantage of the huge run. Nearly 3,000 fish are expected to return -- a bittersweet success for anglers who have lost hatchery production at Ringold to budget cuts.
"This is ... the last hurrah," said Paul Hoffarth, state biologist based in Kennewick. "So I expect a fairly good turnout."
Tahmalwash's tribal status means he won't fight crowds at Wanawish Dam, which is closed to sport fishing.
So far, it's been almost too quiet.
Only about 300 spring chinook have passed Tahmalwash's camp, erected at the urging of his father, who once fished the lower Yakima before he had both legs amputated. Now, Tahmalwash Sr. sits in his car and watches his sons, their hands aching from the strain as they dip nets on 12-foot poles into the river.
"There were times," said Tahmalwash Jr., reaching back into his childhood memories, "when we could catch 10 to 12 apiece at night."
The men fish at night when salmon can't see the hoop nets. "Just get out there and find a good hole, a strong current, and that's where they will be," said Tahmalwash Jr., who digs channels in the river cobbles to entice fish past his platform.
At daybreak, the brothers crawl into the cab of their old Chevy pickup or pull out an ancient mattress and sleep until the heat of the day wakes them.
By then, it's about time to add on to the platform, which they keep expanding as the river drops to midsummer lows. Water levels eventually could mean trouble for the Yakima's fish, which are faced with one of the worst droughts on record -- a stark contrast to high-water conditions when this year's returning fish migrated to the ocean.
"We are a little concerned," Cummins said. "There's a possibility with low water and lots of fish that we might find for the first time ever that there's not enough spawning gravel for them."
But concern about the future hasn't removed all the joy from this year's booming success. Tri-City anglers report hourlong lines at lower Columbia boat launches, where thousands of sport fishermen have tried their luck.
And about the time the Tahmalwashes started dipping nets into the Yakima last night, tribes were finishing their first treaty commercial fishery for spring chinook on the Columbia River since 1977.
"The mood is very upbeat," said Randy Settler, of the Yakama Nation's Fish and Wildlife Committee. "This is a year of celebration."
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