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Speed Demons and Slow Pokes

by Eric Barker
Lewiston Tribune, April 22, 2004

Chinook may be faster than a speeding bullet
or slower than molasses but one way or another, they're headed this way

For the past few days, thousands of chinook have been pouring over Bonneville Dam. It won't be long before the fish counted at Bonneville, about 145 miles east of the mouth of the Columbia River, will make it to waters in Washington and Idaho that are open to fishing.

Conventional wisdom says it takes fish about three weeks to make it from Bonneville to Lower Granite Dam, about 35 miles west of Clarkston on the Snake River.

Modern technology allows some Internet-savvy anglers to follow individual fish in that journey.

A Web site, maintained by the Pacific Marine Fisheries Commission, tracks specially marked fish as they make the journey from their birth place to the ocean as juveniles, and from the ocean back to their home rivers as adults.

A small percentage of the chinook are implanted with tiny computer chips when they are juveniles no more than a few inches long.

Two to three years later, the chips allow the fish to be detected on their return journey from the ocean.

As of Monday, 13 adult chinook carrying the computer chips, known as pit tags, had crossed Lower Granite Dam.

Based on the average travel time of those fish, it will take about 18 days for most chinook to travel from Bonneville to Lower Granite.

That's an average, however. Some fish are moving faster and some are taking their time.

For example, a fish reared at Dworshak National Fish Hatchery near Orofino made the 286-mile trip from Bonneville to Lower Granite in just nine days. That's about 31 miles per day.

But another fish, this one from Rapid River Hatchery near Riggins, took the scenic route home. It took 40 days to make the trip between Bonneville and Lower Granite.

Larry Barrett, a fisheries biologist at the Idaho Department of Fish and Game in Lewiston, says it takes salmon about three to five days to make it from Lower Granite Dam to Lewiston and Clarkston.

The speedster from Dworshak was first detected April 10 at Bonneville Dam. On Monday it was detected crossing Lower Granite Dam.

The Rapid River slowpoke was detected at Bonneville Dam March 8 and crossed Lower Granite Saturday.

But not all Rapid River fish are lollygaggers. Another fish from that hatchery made the trip in 14 days. According to its history, this chinook spent two years at sea. It was last detected as a juvenile on May 23, 2002, at Bonneville Dam.

On April 5 of this year, the fish was detected again at Bonneville Dam. On April 10, it had made it as far as McNary Dam. Two days later it passed Ice Harbor Dam and it reached Lower Granite Dam Monday.

By Monday, 84 two-ocean fish from Dworshak had been detected at Bonneville Dam and eight three-ocean fish. A two-ocean fish is one that has spent two years in the ocean. These fish are also known as two-salt fish.

A three-ocean or three-salt fish is one that has spent three years roaming the Pacific Ocean.

The Web site that tracks this information is used by fisheries managers and fishery biologists. But it also gives anglers an insight into the fish they love.

"I think the point to fishermen is those damn things can motor," says Ralph Roseberg, a biologist at Dworshak National Fish Hatchery. "We have had 84 of our pit tags come through (Bonneville) in the last 14 days and we had our first one at Granite today. So that guy is going to have some company."

Officials at Dworshak put the chips in about 50,000 of the one million or so juvenile fish released each year.

As a rule of thumb, Roseberg says for every fish carrying a pit tag that comes upriver, 20 other fish also make the trip.

The Web site, known as Ptagis, can be found at

Eric Barker
Speed Demons and Slow Pokes
Lewiston Tribune, April 22, 2004

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