COLUMBIA RIVER, PORTS of ILWACO and CHINOOK - In what is expected to be one of the best salmon runs of the last three decades, the Buoy 10 fishing season at the mouth of the Columbia River got off to a slower-than-usual start last Friday. But like a race, the pace of the short, lucrative sport fishing season will likely speed up.
"The mass exodus will really be tomorrow [Saturday]," said U.S. Coast Guard BM1 E6 Kyle Betts on Friday, the season opener. Traditionally, the first Saturday of the Buoy 10 season has been a busy one, with sometimes over 1,000 boats in the water - not the case so far this year.
"My sense is that it's pretty slow here," said Port of Ilwaco Manager Mack Funk of the weekend opener. "There wasn't as much activity as in past years."
Having taken a count of the boats docked in the harbor, Funk said they were down over 100 boats from this same time last year - 452, as opposed to 557. But Funk said there was still time for things to pick up.
"The middle of August is when the fishing tends to get more active because the fish don't always enter river on the first of August," he said. "We're maybe slightly behind last season, but overall, I think we're doing pretty well."
And those who did go out during opening weekend did pretty well, many returning to port with their daily limits of coho and Chinook salmon.
"We limited out at 10 a.m.," said Keith Harrington of Vancouver, Wash. as he carried a burlap sack full of salmon up the gang walk at the Port of Chinook Saturday. "Six in the bag; we're very happy. I'd liked to have seen a 30-pound Chinook, but with a limit of silvers, we can't complain."
Harrington went fishing with a couple of his buddies to the south of Buoy 10, their regular spot this time of year.
"We had a hell of a good day," said Harrington's friend Milton Hunt of Scappoose, Ore. "It's always a good day fishing."
The people on board the charter vessel Sea Sport, from Pacific Salmon Charters, would have agreed with that sentiment when they pulled back into the Port of Ilwaco Saturday afternoon. The 17 passengers brought back 34 fish in all - the biggest, a 20-pound Chinook.
"But we lost one that was way bigger," said deckhand Dustin "Opie" Moon. "It happens though, it's fishing."
As the passengers of the Sea Sport unloaded, most with bags of fish over their shoulders, they were greeted by Ranelle Reber of Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife. Reber was working as a port sampler on the Ilwaco docks Saturday, one of several such officers at local ports, checking with fishers when they returned from salmon fishing.
Reber took down the numbers of fish caught and ran a portable metal detector over each one to check for the wire tags implanted in hatchery fish. When found, she cut off the top half of the salmon's head, then give each a tracking tag. This way the agency can track the origin and numbers of fish as part of its ocean sampling project.
With fewer people on the water last weekend, it made things easier than expected for local Coast Guardsmen, who have their busiest times during the Buoy 10 season. Lt. Richard Burke, commanding officer at USCG Station Cape Disappointment, said that one-third of all annual Coast Guard rescues occur during the 45-day sport fishing season.
Using boats as big as 47-footers and smaller personal boats owned by USCG auxiliary members, the Coast Guard ensures things are safe and sane out on the water. Coast Guard personnel regularly board vessels to enforce laws and verify that people are wearing life preservers. Boat operators drinking alcohol can also be a problem. One thing Guardsmen regularly enforce is Rule 9 of the steering and sailing navigation code, under which boaters impede the progress of a freighter in the channel and need to be moved.
When Buoy 10 ramps up, space gets tight - in the port, on the road and on the river. On busy days, traffic can back up all the way to the traffic light in Ilwaco with people competing to get their boats into the port. It can get particularly crowded on the water when someone finds a "hot spot."
"Five miles of river, and you'll have 500 guys in a quarter mile stretch," said BM1 E6 Betts. When boats get that close, Betts said, it looks as though someone could step from boat to boat.
Another way boaters often get into trouble is by not paying attention to the tides. Water can rise from 2-foot swells to 10-foot swells very quickly. In case of emergencies, the Coast Guard urges boaters to use radios and not rely on cellular phones. Cell phone batteries are known to die during an average six-hour fishing trip. When using the radio, the Coast Guard can zero-in on the signal to verify where a boater in need of help is - which can not be done via cell phone.
In the last two years, the waters around Buoy 10 have become safer thanks to a boaters safety program spearheaded by the local USCG Auxiliary. After the summer of 2001, when nine deaths occurred during Buoy 10 season, the auxiliary took up the cause of educating boaters before they hit the water. The program has had a dramatic effect, with only one death during the 2002 Buoy 10 season and a drop of 20 percent in rescue calls last year. Perhaps the biggest thing the Guard stresses is for people to keep their heads when on the water.
"It is when people get caught up in the catch that they tend to get careless," said Larry Kellis of the USCG Auxiliary. "Nobody's life is worth a damn fish!"