Why the record run?
State and tribal biologists attribute the Columbia River system’s 2013 record run of fall chinook to factors like high spring river flows when fish migrated to the ocean as juveniles, increased flows timed to spill juvenile fish over dams, good ocean conditions, ongoing projects to improve fish passage at dams and the habitat where fish spawn and improved survival of fish produced in hatcheries.
“This historic run is an encouraging sign that regional efforts to rebuild salmon populations are having a positive impact,” said Bill Bradbury, chair of the Northwest Power and Conservation Council, whose Columbia River Basin Fish and Wildlife Program directs funding for many of those efforts.
“By improving spawning and rearing habitat and carefully supplementing naturally spawning runs with hatchery- bred fish, we are not only boosting the runs but also providing fishing opportunities that contribute to our economy.”
Four lucky anglers found their way to the Ringold Springs boat launch in the pre-dawn darkness last week and used flashlights to find their fishing guide.
They’d booked a salmon fishing trip in the Hanford Reach of the Columbia River with a day’s notice only because another group of anglers had canceled with Reel Time Fishing guide Toby Wyatt. Normally a last-minute group cancellation is a direct $600-$1,500 blow to a guide’s bottom line.
“Word’s out about this run,” Wyatt said. “Every guide on the Columbia is booked and there’s a lot of fishermen looking for open slots.” The biggest run of fall chinook since record-keeping started in 1938 is parading up the Columbia and Snake rivers, chalking up impressive numbers as it advances.
The 2013 run is expected to total more than one million chinook to the mouth of the Columbia River, exceeding the best year on record by around 400,000 fish.
Regional fisheries managers have upped their forecast for the component of the run known as “adult upriver brights” to 835,000 fish reaching Bonneville Dam, the first dam they encounter in their migration from the ocean to upriver spawning grounds. That would smash the record of 610,436 in 2003.
Chinook returning to tributaries in the 146 miles of the Columbia River from its mouth to Bonneville Dam are not reflected in the upstream dam counts.
The upriver brights are the fall chinooks bound primarily for the Hanford Reach, the free-flowing stretch of the Columbia downstream of Priest Rapids Dam.
The run also includes wild and hatchery fish returning to release sites and tributaries along the Columbia in central Washington as well as in the Snake River.
A record 50,000 chinook adults already have reached Lower Granite Dam, the last dam on the Snake before they reach Idaho. And they’re still coming by 500-800 a day.
“For the anglers who’ve figured out how to catch them, the fishing has been as good as it gets, 10 or more a day,” said Joe DuPont, Idaho Fish and Game Department regional fisheries manager in Lewiston. “The overall catch rate is three hours per fish at Heller Bar. Fantastic.
“But anglers should know that only about 30 percent of these chinoook are hatchery fin-clipped fish, and they must release all unclipped chinook (in the Snake system) to protect the (endangered) wild stocks.”
While the chinook are making post-dam era history for abundance, anglers are setting records for catching them.
Sport fishermen have caught 66,000 fall chinook below Bonneville as the run passed through, surpassing the record 43,400 fish caught in 2012.
On Sept. 10, a single-day record of 63,870 fall chinook was counted crossing Bonneville, the highest of three single-day records set that week.
Now the fishery is bending rods upstream.
Around 400,000 adult fall chinook have survived downstream sea lions, sportfishing hooks and commercial gillnets to move since Aug. 1 over McNary Dam, the last Columbia dam they climb before heading into the Hanford Reach.
Most will attempt to spawn near Priest Rapids Dam.
The big upstream surge peaked at McNary around Sept. 22, when a record 30,300 chinook swam over it in 24 hours.
Washington Fish and Wildlife Department creel surveyors recorded 6,833 angler trips and 5,393 harvested adult chinook on the Hanford Reach during the week ending Sept. 29 compared with 4,636 angler trips and 1,849 kept salmon during the same week in 2012.
“The run has created a lot of excitement,” said Paul Hoffarth, state fisheries biologist in the Tri Cities.
“We’ll surpass last year’s catch record of 13,000 adults and 5,000 jacks in The Reach; it’s just a matter of how much. Anglers are harvesting more than 6,000 fish a week — more than the entire season’s catch in most other years – and the season runs through Oct. 22.”