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Reel Time Fishing Northwest

Mark Yuasa covers fishing and outdoors in the Pacific Northwest.

April 22, 2011 at 12:47 PM

Expected high water flow could affect Yakima River spring chinook fishery

Here is a story by Scott Sandsberry of the Yakima Herald-Republic on the Yakima River spring chinook fishery.

Even with thousands of spring chinook soon to be churning up the Columbia River, something deep within their genetic makeup pulling them inexorably toward the Yakima River, the countless anglers anxiously awaiting their arrival should also expect a little disappointment.

Oh, there will be a spring chinook fishery in the Yakima River; that’s a given. Of the 10,320 springers forecast for the Yakima Basin, 4,120 are expected to be of hatchery origin and therefore legal keepers.

That will be more than enough for state fishery managers to justify a Yakima River spring chinook fishery, possibly beginning as early as May 1. Considering the lateness of the current Columbia River run, that opening may be pushed back until the weekend of May 7-8 or even as late as May 13-14. If that happens, the fishery will also probably be extended a week or two into July.

The thing that’s more likely to disappoint anglers, though, won’t be the late-arriving fish. It’ll be the fast, cold, turbid water.

As of Friday, snowpack was at 119 percent of average in the Lower Yakima basin and 99 percent in the Upper Yakima. With the five reservoirs that feed the Yakima system at 88 percent of capacity, intermittent above-normal releases will be necessary to make room for the late-spring rains and snowmelt.

That will mean high river flows in the Yakima, often rendering those chinook all but invisible to the anglers and making the anglers’ offerings all but invisible to the fish.

“Sometime during that eight-week period (of the expected fishery), we’re going to have a week or two of high water. It’s just going to happen, what with the reservoirs this full and that much snow in the mountains,” said John Easterbrooks, regional fish program manager for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.

That will be nothing new to anyone familiar with Yakima springer fisheries.

The 2001 non-selective sport fishery was hugely successful, with nontribal anglers on the Yakima harvesting 1,252 hatchery chinook and 772 natural-origin fish. But circumstances were very different: Not only could fishers keep natural-origin (wild) chinook, they had perfect conditions.

“We didn’t lose one day with unfishable water,” Easterbrooks said, “because it was a severe drought year — low and clear for the entire duration of the fishery.”

That certainly wasn’t the case in ensuing years of mark-selective (hatchery-only) harvest; the take plummeted to 492 in 2002, 569 in 2004, 586 in 2008 and 541 in 2009. (Insufficient run numbers precluded fisheries in ’03 and ’05-’07.)

“All those other years when we were catching 500 to 600 hatchery fish, we’d lose at least a week to two weeks of good fishing conditions to high water,” Easterbrooks said. “Last year the catch went up again — we had ideal conditions, we didn’t have high runoff, we had a cool spring and the snowmelt came off really evenly. (Anglers) really hammered them up at Roza.”

With those ideal conditions last spring, anglers reeled in an estimated 1,104 keepers (based on creel census) between Union Gap and Roza Dam and another 50 in the Lower Yakima between Richland and Horn Rapids Dam.

Anglers and fish managers anticipating this year’s run to the Yakima have another concern — the recent trend toward late-starting runs has dovetailed with a persistent pattern of over-estimating the return in the preseason forecast, both in the Columbia basin as a whole and in the Yakima basin.

Not since 2000 has the actual return to the Yakima lived up to the forecast. Last year the return of 11,030 was well off the 16,570 expected, and 2009’s return of 7,470 was well under half the forecast of 15,910. And this year’s run start is reaching historically low levels; the number of spring chinook through Bonneville didn’t exceed 1,000 until Saturday, making it the worst start since 2005 and 2006 — years in which there was no fishery on the Yakima.

There is some other good news, though, on the springer front. In addition to the fact that there will be a Yakima fishery, high water or not, the chances of catching a fat 5-year-old spring chinook at Ringold on the Hanford Reach may actually turn out to be better than original expected.

WDFW managers had intended to adopt an emergency regulation shutting down the permanent rule opening the Ringold springer fishery, since the Ringold hatchery is no longer producing spring chinook smolts and sent out its last release in 2008. Based on long-term release, return and mortality averages, this year’s return of age-5 adults was initially projected at only about 50 fish.

But the return of jacks (age-3 fish) to Ringold in 2009 was stronger than anticipated, and then last year’s return of 4-year-olds was also well above expectations.

“That means the smolts going out in 2008 had good migration survival and good ocean conditions for feeding,” Easterbrooks said.

That also bodes well for the 5-year-olds as well, and if survival is as strong with the fifth-year fish as it was for the jacks of 2009 and the 4-year-olds of 2010, the 50 anticipated 5-year-olds could turn out to be closer to 200 or even 300. That’s enough of the big 15- to 25-pound fish to open the Ringold fishery on May 1 — right on schedule.

And if springers have begun moving up the Yakima in decent numbers by then, Easterbrooks said, the WDFW may also open the lower portion of the Yakima — from Richland to Horn Rapids Dam — also on May 1.

The possibility of the Yakama Nation opening to non-tribal fishing the “Reservation Boundary Reach” — the popular river section bordering the Yakama Reservation from the State Route 223 Granger Bridge to the railroad bridge below Sunnyside Dam (also known as Parker Dam) — is unknown at this time.

The last time that reach was open for spring chinook was 2004.

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