Snake Spring Run
by Bill Rudolph
Harvest managers may have been wildly optimistic about the prospects of this year's upriver spring chinook run in the Columbia River, and though notoriously late, it has still turned out to be one of the best since dams on the lower Snake were built, where much of the upriver run is headed.
With more than 55,000 fish counted as of June 4, it is running a few thousand fish ahead of last year's return, and will likely be the second best return of the past eight years. It's likely to wind up fifth or sixth best since the first dam went up on the lower Snake in 1963. But in those days, most returning chinook were wild. Today they only make up about 20 percent of the spring run.
From 2001 to 2004, spring chinook returns to Lower Granite were the highest in recent decades, ranging from 57,000 to 159,000 fish (counted though June 4). In 2010, about 83,000 were counted. But in previous decades, one would have to go all the way back to 1973 to find more spring chinook in the Snake than this year's return.
Lower Granite hadn't even been built by then, when 58,000 springers were counted that year. Most of the fish counted back then were truly wild, and they were survivors of a significant harvest regime in the lower river. According to WDFW records, commercial catches both below and above Bonneville Dam added up to 95,000 fish (61,000 below, 34,000 above), with another 30,000 fish from the lower Columbia sport catch. The fish count at Bonneville Dam added up to about 142,000 that spring, but jacks were counted with adults back then.
Meanwhile down at Bonneville Dam, where official counting of the spring run ends June 15, more than a thousand chinook a day are still heading upstream. By June 4, the spring run totaled more than 155,000 springers at the dam.
On June 1, harvest managers came up with their latest estimate of the spring run. Since the season started, they had whittled it down to 209,000 from 313,000 (to Columbia River mouth). On June 4, they stayed with that number.
They reported on June 6 that tribal fisheries had caught 15,970 springers by June 2, and were expected to land another 465 fish by the middle of June.
Non-treaty gillnetters had landed more than 6,000 in 18 hours of fishing during two periods earlier this spring, and nearly 13,000 were caught in their off-channel select areas.
Recreational fishers had caught 10,242 springers below Bonneville, another 866 fish between the dam and the Washington/Oregon border, and 2,377 in the Snake River (by May 22).
According to the managers, a final upriver run size of 198,750 is necessary to remain within catch balances and ESA impact limitations for completed and planned non-treaty fisheries. On June 6, they said, based on the 5-year average, the spring run past Bonneville averaged 87 percent complete by that date. A recommendation to approve a one-day tribal gillnet fishery was not acted upon, but tribal platform and rod and reel fisheries will continue until further notice.
But next year's return to Lower Granite is an entirely different matter. The jack count is pushing 3,000, which is only one-fifth of last year's huge number, and about fifth lowest in the past dozen years. In 2004, with similar jack returns, the adult spring chinook run in 2005 added up to only about 20,000 fish. But counting jacks will only get you so far. Take the 700 or so spring jacks counted in 2006. The 2007 adult run was nearly 19,000 springers.
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