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Ecology and salmon related articles

Spring Loaded

by Eric Barker
Lewiston Tribune, March 9(?), 2001

An estimated 100,000 wild and hatchery chinook are expected to return to area rivers and streams

The lunkers are coming. Anglers should brace themselves, check their equipment and prepare for a spring chinook run that may never be repeated.

The largest run of hatchery-produced spring and summer chinook in recent history will begin heading up the Columbia River in the next few weeks. The kings should begin showing up in Idaho waters in about six weeks.

Not only will there be more hatchery salmon in the run, there will be more of the 25- to 30- pound chinook that have spent an extra year in the ocean.

Fisheries biologists from Idaho and Oregon are working out the complicated details needed for a fishing season on the surplus springers. Officials at the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife also are considering a chinook season on the Snake River but have not yet submitted a proposal.

According to estimates, between 74,000 and 107,000 wild and hatchery spring chinook could make it past Lower Granite Dam on the Snake River. That is more than double last year's return of some 33,800 chinook.

Idaho biologists want to raise the bag limits on chinook and expand the areas open to fishing. They also will propose opening the season a few weeks earlier -- in mid-April. Like last year, anglers will be allowed to keep only hatchery-produced chinook identifiable by a clipped adipose fin on their backs.

Idaho last year held a spring chinook season on the Little Salmon River, Lower Clearwater River, South Fork of the Clearwater River and the Lochsa River.

This year the department is expected to recommend adding the Middle Fork of the Clearwater River to the season and more miles of water on the South Fork of the Clearwater River.

To relieve the elbow-to-elbow fishing pressure on the Little Salmon River, the department is proposing a season on the main Salmon River between Riggins and Hammer Creek. Idaho also is working jointly with Oregon to have a season on the Snake River in Hells Canyon above the confluence with the Imnaha River.

The proposal for a fishery on the Lower Salmon and Snake rivers is being closely scrutinized by officials at the National Marine Fisheries Service. Biologists there want to make sure anglers do not affect stocks of spring chinook listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.

Last year, fishing for spring chinook that originated from the Rapid River Hatchery near Riggins was allowed only on the Little Salmon River. But this year, biologists are expecting some 20,000 chinook to return to the hatchery.

"We don't think the sport fishery has the ability to harvest the non-tribal quota of that return in the Little Salmon River, so we'd like to offer some opportunity in the main Salmon," said Idaho Fish and Game fisheries biologist Ed Schriever.

The Lower Salmon River is a mixed stock fishery -- meaning it has many species of fish. Some of those are protected stocks of spring chinook that pass through the lower riverr on their way to the upper Salmon and the Middle Fork of the Salmon rivers.

Holding a fishery on the Lower Salmon presents the risk of anglers hooking and harming wild salmon that are protected by the Endangered Species Act.

When a season is proposed, state and federal fisheries agencies estimate how many wild fish will be hooked by anglers and how many could die. To protect wild fish, NMFS assumes a conservative hooking mortality of 10 percent. That means the agency assumes 10 percent of the wild fish that are caught and released by anglers will die.

For example, Herb Pollard, a fisheries biologist with the National Marine Fisheries Service at Boise, said his agency may allow as many as 30 wild salmon to be incidentally killed in the Salmon River fishery. That would mean after 300 wild fish were caught and released, the fishery would shut down.

The same concerns for wild fish will be applied to a proposed fishery on the Snake River in Hells Canyon. However, the fishery proposed by Idaho and Oregon would start above the Imnaha River, the last tributary before Hells Canyon Dam that contains wild runs of chinook. About 2,200 hatchery chinook are expected to return to a trap at Hells Canyon Dam.

Oregon also wants to have a spring chinook season in the Imnaha River. That could prove tricky because both hatchery and wild chinook in the Imnaha are listed as threatened. But the hatchery portion of the run is expected to be large enough to allow some harvest. Bruce Eddy, district manager of the Grand Ronde River Watershed for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, said his agency has proposed a season there that could take as many as 320 hatchery fish.

"We want to have real tight reins on the thing," he said.

That means if the season is approved by NMFS, there will likely be a mandatory reporting system for successful anglers. There has not been a spring chinook season in the Imnaha since the 1970s.

Washington also is considering the possibility of a spring chinook season on the Snake River. But the agency is still talking with NMFS about the idea and has not submitted a proposal. Still, a spokeswoman for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife said it's likely a season will be held.

"It's looking very good that we will have something for Washington anglers," said Madonna Luers at Spokane.

Spring chinook are not listed in the Clearwater Basin and that gives the Idaho Department of Fish and Game more flexibility when setting salmon seasons there.

Biologists for the department expect about the same number of fish to return to the North Fork of the Clearwater River this year but far more to return to the Kooskia Hatchery on Clear Creek and traps at Powell, Red River and Crooked River. Only about 600 spring chinook returned to the Kooskia Hatchery last year and the department kept the Middle Fork of Clearwater River closed to protect those fish.

This year some 6,000 spring chinook are expected to return to the hatchery there, far more than needed and far more than can be handled by the staff at the hatchery.

The department wants to open the Clearwater from Lewiston to the confluence of the Lochsa and Selway rivers. More of the South Fork of the Clearwater River could be opened this year and the reach may open earlier than last year. The Lochsa River will likely open Memorial Day weekend.

Schriever said the department also will propose a daily fishing structure with more flexibility. Last year, fishing was allowed between 5 a.m. and 9 p.m. This year the department will propose a daily structure that would allow fishing one half hour before sunrise to one half hour after sunset.

Daily bag limits likely will be expanded as well. Last year, anglers were able to keep three hatchery chinook per day and 20 per season. Officials aren't saying what the bag limit will be this year, but say it's likely to be close to last year's.

The department will make its recommendations public when it presents them to the Fish and Game Commission meeting at Boise March 16. The commission is then expected to collect public comment on the proposed seasons and take action on the proposals at their meeting in April.

The National Marine Fisheries Service will likely act on the proposals sometime in April.

Eric Barker
Spring loaded
Lewiston Tribune, March 9(?), 2001

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