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Reel Time Fishing Northwest

Mark Yuasa covers fishing and outdoors in the Pacific Northwest.

January 26, 2012 at 4:56 PM

Good times expected for Lower Columbia spring chinook as fishing seasons are approved

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Salmon anglers can start making plans to hit the waters of the Lower Columbia River for a strong return of spring chinook, which would be the fourth-largest on record.

For now fishing seasons adopted last year are still in effect, and fishing seasons decided today by Washington and Oregon Fish and Wildlife managers will begin on March 1.

The sport spring chinook fishery approved is scheduled to run through April 6, but could be extended if enough fish are available for harvest.

Harvest guidelines adopted by the two states will allow anglers fishing below Bonneville Dam to catch and keep up to 14,500 hatchery-reared spring chinook before the run forecast is updated in May.

“Not only is the run forecast well above average, but fishing conditions should be a lot better than last year when anglers had to contend with weeks of high, turbid water,” Cindy LeFleur, a state Fish and Wildlife Columbia River policy manager said in a news release.

Spring chinook fishing is currently open to boat and bank anglers on a daily basis from Buoy 10 near the mouth of the Columbia River upstream to the I-5 bridge.

Under the new rules, the sport fishery will expand upriver to Beacon Rock from March 1 through April 6. During that period, the sport fishery will close on three Tuesdays – March 20, March 27 and April 3 – to accommodate commercial fisheries.

Starting March 1, bank anglers will also be allowed to fish from Beacon Rock up to the fishing boundary below Bonneville Dam.

Above Bonneville Dam, the fishery will be open to boat and bank anglers on a daily basis from March 16 through May 2 between the Tower Island powerlines six miles below The Dalles Dam and the Washington/Oregon state line, 17 miles upriver from McNary Dam. Bank anglers can also fish from Bonneville Dam upriver to the powerlines during that time.

Starting March 1, anglers fishing downriver from Bonneville Dam may retain one marked, hatchery-reared adult spring chinook as part of their daily catch limit. Above the dam, anglers can keep two marked adult spring chinook per day effective March 16.

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As in years past, only hatchery-reared spring chinook marked with a clipped adipose fin may be retained. Any unmarked wild spring chinook must be released unharmed.

The upriver Columbia River spring chinook forecast is 314,200 compared to a forecast last year of 198,400 and an actual return of 221,200. It would be the fourth largest dating back to 1980, with the largest return of 440,300 happening in 2001.

The second largest occurred in 2002 when 335,000 upriver springers returned, and the third largest was 315,000 in 2010.

The Upper Columbia spring chinook forecast in 2012 is 32,600 compared to a 22,400 forecast last year and an actual return of 16,500. For Upper Columbia wild spring chinook the forecast in 2012 is 2,800 compared to 2,000 and 2,200.

The Snake River spring/summer forecast in 2012 is 168,000 compared to 91,700 last year (127,500 was actual return). The Snake River wild spring chinook is 39,000 in 2012 compared to 24,700 last year (31,600).

The 2012 adult spring chinook returns for the Cowlitz, Kalama and Lewis rivers look slightly better than last year with a total forecast of 12,100 compared to 10,600 forecast in 2011 and an actual return of 6,300.

The Cowlitz forecast is 8,700 (6,600 was 2011 forecast, and actual return was 4,100); Kalama, 700 (600 and 800); and Lewis, 2,700 (3,400 and 1,400).

The spawning goals in the Cowlitz and Lewis are 1,250 each; and the Kalama is 500. Spring chinook fishing restrictions are likely in the Kalama and Lewis.

The Cowlitz had a strong jack spring chinook return in 2011, and the Cowlitz forecast in 2012 is above the recent five-year average. Kalama returns have been down for the past three years, and the forecasts for the Lewis is slightly below the five-year average.

To guard against overestimating this year’s run, the states will again manage the fisheries with a 30 percent buffer until the forecast is updated in late April or early May.

Fishery managers from Washington and Oregon have already scheduled a meeting April 5 to review the catch and determine if the season can be extended. If the catch to that point has not reached the initial harvest guideline, the two states will consider an immediate extension, said LeFleur.

“We’ve agreed to take a conservative approach until May, when we typically know how many fish are actually returning,” Le Fleur said. “If the fish return at or above expectations, we will look toward providing additional days of fishing on the river later in the spring.”

The Columbia River spring chinook are prized by anglers for their tasty, Omega-3 laced, red-orange-colored meat, which is similar to fish from Alaska’s Copper River.

The height of the spring chinook return is March and April, when anglers by the thousands turn out for this fishery that creates long lines at boat ramps on both sides of the Columbia, and also stirs a frenzy for tribal and nontribal commercial fishermen.

Sport angler trips in the Lower Columbia have averaged 129,000 since 2002.

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While anglers will be reeling in on the good times for spring chinook it was also decided at the meeting to create more stringent fisheries for sturgeon in the Lower Columbia for the third straight year in a row.

Sturgeon abundance below Bonneville Dam has declined dramatically in recent years, so fishing regulations will reduce the catch by another 38 percent this year.

“This year’s sturgeon fishery will be opening later or closing earlier on various sections of the river,” LeFleur said. “Anglers should check this year’s fishing rules carefully before they head out.

New harvest guidelines approved for sturgeon fisheries in the lower Columbia River will limit this year’s catch to 9,600, a 38 percent reduction from last year. That action follows a 30 percent catch reduction in 2011 and a 40 percent reduction in 2010.

Monitoring data jointly collected by Washington and Oregon indicate that the abundance of legal-size white sturgeon has declined by nearly 50 percent since 2003.

Factors often cited for the decline include increased predation by sea lions and a drop in the abundance of smelt and lamprey, which contribute to sturgeons’ diet.

To keep this year’s catch within the new harvest guideline, the sturgeon fishery will end 23 days earlier than last year in the estuary below the Wauna powerlines and start eight days later in the fall from the powerlines upriver to Bonneville Dam.

Sturgeon fishing seasons in the Lower Columbia River are:

Buoy 10 to the Wauna powerlines: Retention of white sturgeon is allowed daily from Jan. 1 through April 30 and from May 12 through July 8. From Jan. 1 through April 30, sturgeon must measure between 38 inches and 54 inches (fork length) to be retained.

From May 12 through the end of the season they must measure 41 inches to 54 inches (fork length) to be retained. Catch-and-release fishing is allowed on days when retention is prohibited.

Wauna powerlines to Bonneville Dam: Retention of white sturgeon is allowed three days per week (Thursday through Saturday) from Jan. 1 through July 31 and from Oct. 20 through Dec. 31. Sturgeon must measure between 38 inches and 54 inches (fork length) to be retained. Catch-and-release fishing is allowed on days when retention is prohibited.

All fishing for sturgeon will be closed from May 1 through Aug. 31 in the sturgeon sanctuary downriver from Bonneville Dam described in the Fishing in Washington rules pamphlet. Sand Island Slough near Rooster Rock also will be closed to fishing at least through April 30.

As in years past, 80 percent of the allowable catch will be allocated to the sport fishery and 20 percent to the commercial fishery. Under the new harvest rate, the portion of the catch available to recreational fisheries will be allocated as follows: up to 4,160 fish in the estuary, up to 2,080 above Wauna and between 1,768 and 2,022 in the Willamette River.

The harvest share between recreational fisheries upstream and downstream from the Wauna power lines will be flexible and may be adjusted in-season to meet the states’ expectations for fishing seasons and ensure the harvest rate does not exceed area catch guidelines.

(Photos by Mark Harrison, Seattle Times staff photographer, and state Fish and Wildlife)

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