Recreational angling improved last week in the Columbia River from the river’s mouth to Bonneville Dam, prompting the two-state Columbia River Compact to take a cautious approach to extending early season fishing.
The Compact at its call-in hearing on April 12 added two five day periods for anglers downstream of the dam, but scheduled a check-in hearing between the two periods in case catch of upriver fish — the limiting factor in the number of fish anglers can catch — exceeds the limit of 6,905 fish.
The four-day Lower Columbia River spring Chinook season that closed Monday, April 11, showed a significant improvement in angling success than a previous period, ending April 2, when anglers caught just 82 fish from 10,578 angler trips.
Runoff slows fishing
The poor fishing has been due to river conditions with higher, colder and more turbid water than normal. Those conditions persist, but somewhat improved last week and angling success improved with the conditions.
With seasonal water flow well above average, anglers have not had much success in getting fish to bite, said Ron Roler, a Columbia River fishery manager for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.
Through April 10, anglers had caught only about 10 percent of the upriver spring Chinook available for harvest at that point in the season.
During the period April 3 through April 10 anglers caught 1,052 spring Chinook from 11,549 angler trips, bringing the season total to 1,134 spring Chinook and 35 steelhead from 22,127 angler trips. Some 117 spring Chinook and 18 steelhead were released. The number of fish caught April 11 had not become available at the time of the Compact’s call-in hearing last week.
The number of upriver fish caught through April 10 was estimated at 702 Chinook, or 10 percent of the 6,905 available to this fishery prior to an expected run-size update in early May.
Chinook move into estuary
Test fishing by WDFW is continuing to show a significant increase in Chinook abundance in the lower river, according to the Compact. Test fishing April 9 increased to 7.8 fish per drift compared to 6 fish per drift April 2, 3.1 fish per drift March 27 and 1.7 fish per drift March 19. The highest count last year was 2.7 fish per drift on April 3, 2016.
“Test fisheries in the lower river are finding plenty of spring Chinook,” Roler said. “They’re just not very quick to bite or move upriver under these conditions. Often visibility in the river is so limited that the fish can’t see the anglers’ lures.”
“Fishing should pick up fairly quickly once the fish start to move,” Roler said.
Dam count far below average
Yet, at this point in the season few Chinook are moving upriver beyond Bonneville Dam, with just 217 of the fish passing the dam by April 10, one of the lowest counts on this date since Bonneville Dam was built, according to John North of the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife.
The number over the dam had picked up to 305 fish by April 13, but it is still far below last year’s count at that time of 2,515 fish and below the 10-year average of 3,372 Chinook.
“It’ still too early to tell how big this run is, or if it will be larger or smaller than our forecast,” said Stuart Ellis, harvest management biologist with the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission and lead of the U.S. v Oregon Technical Advisory Committee, which forecasts salmon and steelhead runs in the Columbia River.
Under the preseason forecast, approximately 160,400 upriver spring Chinook are expected to return to the waters upstream of Bonneville Dam this year, which is about 80 percent of the 10-year average. That forecast is also down from last year’s actual run of 187,816 fish.
The total 2017 spring Chinook forecast — including upriver and lower river Chinook — is down 17 percent to 227,890 fish from the 2016 actual run of 274,652 fish.
River conditions at Bonneville dam are still higher, colder, and more turbid than recent five-year averages for the first half of April. Outflow at the dam is nearly 400,000 cubic feet per second, which is almost 40 percent higher than average.
Water temperature is 47 degrees Fahrenheit, colder than the average of 49 degrees F. Visibility is 2 feet compared to the average of just over 4 feet.
Fishing days added
At the end of the long meeting that had more fishing guides and fishing industry people testifying than is normal, the Compact set two five day periods of fishing for recreational anglers.
Angling for spring Chinook opened April 1 through April 17, and will be open again from Thursday, April 20, through Sunday, April 23. The Council scheduled a check-in hearing at 1 p.m., Wednesday, April 19. That meeting could be canceled if catch and upriver mortalities during the first five-day period are low.
Angling is open from Buoy 10 upstream to Beacon Rock (boat and bank) and from Beacon Rock to Bonneville Dam from the bank for two adipose fin-clipped salmonids per day, with only one being a Chinook.
Commercial gillnetters that have been fishing in off-channel select areas since January, also saw an extension last week, but only at upper Youngs Bay and Blind Slough in Oregon. Fishing in Select Areas was open April 13 and April 17.
The catch in Select Areas through April 11 totaled 583 Chinook, or 81 percent of the recent five-year average harvest of 721 fish. The catch includes an estimated 76 upriver spring Chinook.