Salmon Situation on Snake
by Jayson Jacoby
The Snake River in Hells Canyon, and possibly tributaries including the Imnaha and Wallowa rivers, are among the few places in the West where the salmon fishing news this year is of the good variety.
Anglers on the Wallowa River, in fact, might get the chance to catch salmon there for the first time since the 1970s.
Disastrous, though, is a more apt adjective for conditions in the Pacific Ocean, where federal officials have banned commercial salmon fishing off the Oregon and California coasts.
That decision was due to a precipitous drop in the number of fall chinook salmon returning to the Sacramento River in Northern California this year.
But salmon runs from different river systems can vary dramatically, even in the same year, in part because salmon spread out in the Pacific, said Scott Patterson, hatchery coordinator for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife's Northeast Region.
If, for instance, salmon from the Sacramento stay in a section of ocean where food is scarce, then few will return to the river, Patterson said.
Apparently this year's run of Snake River hatchery chinook picked the right part of the ocean, though.
The run could be the biggest since 2001, and one of the best in the past quarter century, according to ODFW biologists.
As a result ODFW, for the seventh year in the past eight, has approved a sport-fishing season for salmon on the Snake River between Hells Canyon Dam and Dug Bar.
The season, which opened Saturday, could be the longest of the recent series, lasting until as late as July 20 depending on how the chinook run progresses.
Usually large numbers of chinook don't reach Hells Canyon until late May, Patterson said.
Anglers can keep as many as three adult hatchery chinook per day, and up to two jack chinook (jacks are smaller salmon that spent one year in the Pacific).
Hatchery fish have clipped adipose fins.
Anglers must release all wild chinook, which have intact adipose fins. To protect those wild fish in case they are caught, salmon anglers have to use barbless hooks.
Patterson said ODFW also has asked federal fish managers for permission to allow sport fishing for salmon later this year in the Imnaha and Wallowa rivers.
Federal officials have not decided whether to approve that request, Patterson said.
He's especially excited about the possibility of the first salmon season on the Wallowa in more than 30 years.
"If the fish cooperate and keep coming, there should be enough," Patterson said.
If federal officials grant ODFW's request, the salmon season for the Imnaha probably would open in late June or early July, and for the Wallowa River maybe a couple weeks earlier.
Patterson predicts that as many as 2,500 spring chinook will return to the Wallowa River this year, about half of them hatchery-raised fish.
If ODFW gets permission for a salmon season on the Wallowa, anglers would be confined to the reach between the mouth of the Lostine River and possibly Minam State Park, where the Wallowa and Minam rivers meet, Patterson said.
However, ODFW might have to move the boundary for legal fishing upstream on the Wallowa from the state park, to avoid the possibility of anglers hooking wild chinook returning to spawn in the Minam River.
Patterson said ODFW also hopes to release surplus hatchery chinook in the Powder River in Baker City and below Mason Dam.
"I think there's a strong chance that will happen," he said.
ODFW predicts about 124,000 adult hatchery chinook, and 21,100 wild chinook, will climb the ladder this year at Lower Granite Dam, on the Snake River below Lewiston, Idaho.
Those totals would be the highest since 2001, when the count at Lower Granite Dam was 210,381 chinook.
This year's projected run includes far more hatchery fish than hatchery managers need to supply eggs for the next generation.
The predicted flood of spring chinook so far has been a trickle, at least as far upstream as Lower Granite Dam.
As of Tuesday, 668 chinook had passed that dam, according to the Fish Passage Center.
The salmon are on their way, however.
At Bonneville Dam, the farthest downstream in the series of hydropower dams on the Columbia, almost 34,000 adult chinook had moved through the ladders.
"They're coming," Patterson said.
Although most spring chinook exit the Snake and swim upstream on a tributary such as the Clearwater or Salmon river in Idaho, and the Grande Ronde or Imnaha in Oregon, several thousand chinook should stay in the Snake and move upstream toward Hells Canyon Dam this spring and early summer, said Rhine Messmer, who manages ODFW's recreational fisheries program.
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