The Fall Chinook Salmon
by Roger Phillips
Late last month the states of Oregon and Washington closed steelhead fishing
on the Columbia River, also due to poor returns, and it continues to remain closed.
YAKIMA, Wash. -- Oh how far we have fallen. No, I'm not talking about the Seahawks, I'm talking about the fall chinook salmon run in the Columbia River.
It was not that long ago that the run of fall chinook salmon was over a million fish. In just five short years the numbers of fall salmon returning to the Columbia, specifically returning to the Columbia above Bonneville Dam, has dropped from one of the largest in recorded history, to one where, as of today, all sport fishing for salmon has been closed on the river from Highway 395 near Pasco, all the way down river to Buoy 10 near Astoria.
In 2013 the fish count at Bonneville Dam was the largest number since the dam was completed in 1938. At the peak of the run, nearly 64,000 fish passed through the ladders in a single day. The historically large return prompted fisheries manager to extend sport, commercial and tribal fishing seasons on the river, and expand daily bag limits.
Biologists say the huge run in 2013 was the result of a perfect combination of abundant food and cool temperatures in the ocean, along with court-ordered actions over the past decade to make the 14 dams in the Columbia Basin less lethal to fish. There were also improvements at fish hatcheries, particularly those run by the Nez Perce Tribe in Idaho.
But this year is different. Way different. As of Tuesday only 105,795 fall chinook had made their way up through the fish ladders at Bonneville. And, unless the run totals perk up soon, this could be the lowest fall Chinook return to the mouth of the Columbia since 2007
The upriver bright Chinook return, which includes endangered species-listed Snake River fish, are currently projected to return at 69 percent of expectations, which means if left open fisheries could exceed the allowable harvest rate. In response, Oregon and Washington managers decided on Tuesday to close all salmon fisheries on the Columbia below Tri-Cities until further notice.
Fortunately, there are still a few places for anglers to try for a fall salmon if they so desire. The always popular Drano Lake is still open, as it gets a hatchery run of fall chinook. That run is part of the low counts over Bonneville though, and so far the past few weeks fishing at Drano has been pretty poor.
And the Hanford Reach is still open for fishing for upriver bright salmon. As is the Columbia around Ringold and White Bluffs between the Tri-Cities and Priest Rapids Dam.
In recent days anglers have been having some luck in this portion of the Columbia on early arriving chinook and the fishing should get better in the days and weeks ahead, if the fish keep coming. Fish biologists and managers will certainly be keeping an eye on the run though and if they think the numbers are too low to sustain a fishery, they might just close it too.
Late last month the states of Oregon and Washington closed steelhead fishing on the Columbia River, also due to poor returns, and it continues to remain closed.
There are all kinds of theories as to why the salmon and steelhead runs are so far down this year. Three years ago, when many of the juvenile fish were being flushed out to the ocean the water temperatures were extremely high. Record numbers of sockeye salmon were killed, and it had to be hard on the little salmon who rely of the river current to take them out to the Pacific.
And then, there was the infamous "blob" out in the Pacific. The Blob was the nickname for a huge high pressure system over the North Pacific that basically stalled out and got stuck there. In this portion of the Pacific the waters warmed up about six degrees Fahrenheit. Then a strong El Niño came through that reinforced those conditions.
Ocean conditions off the Pacific Northwest seem to be returning to normal after a three-year spike in water temperature, which is good news for fish and for fishermen who have been faced with lower return numbers the past few years.
The latest Columbia River salmon closure is for "all salmon" which also includes the popular fall coho salmon fishery at the mouth of the Klickitat and at other spots along the Columbia.
The Klickitat River remains open for all salmon and steelhead fishing however, so if the coho numbers keep coming as expected--preseason estimates are for over 319,000 coho to return to the Columbia--there will hopefully be some fish to pursue later this month and in October. And if the run is what they expect, they may open the Columbia for that fishery.
In the meantime, several popular salmon fishing holes on the lower and mid-Columbia are now closed to all salmon and steelhead fishing. Fishing guides, motels, restaurants and other businesses along the river are definitely going to feel the effects of the closure of this popular fishery.
Salmon anglers will be too, but most, I believe, understand the reasons for the closures. They don't like it, but they understand. It is just hard to take considering just five years there were fish every. Oh how far we have fallen.
The Fall Chinook Salmon Run Has Fallen Quickly by Roger Phillips, Yakima Herald-Republic, 9/12/18
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