WARRENTON — In the 20th-century heyday of recreational salmon fishing on the Columbia River, marinas were jammed with bustling charter fishing vessels. Today, you’re lucky to count more than 20.

The extinction of the charter fishing fleet has played out over the past 30 years, punctuated by strange weather, competition from smaller guide boats, changes in hatchery policies and ever-shorter fishing seasons.

Increasingly, charters have begun to offer more bottom-fishing trips as salmon and sturgeon seasons have become less dependable. However, the roughly 17-mile trek to the popular fishing grounds off Tillamook Head leaves little margin for profit.

The recreational bottom-fishing season officially opened in Washington state waters on March 9, but charters aren’t anticipating heavy bookings until halibut starts in May.

Looking back

Still, skippers are nostalgic about a different era for charter fleets on both sides of the Columbia River.

“In the mid-’70s, we were running from the 15th of April until the middle of October just doing salmon fishing,” said Pat Schenk, owner of Sea Breeze Charters in Ilwaco.

“I made 166 trips in a row in 1976. It was all salmon. It was crazy,” he said. “We had an outfit called Columbia Bar Charters at the time. We had 16 boats out of our office. We were sending out 150 people a day, making two or three trips. It was wide open.”

Schenk estimated there were a total of up to 150 charter boats operating out of Ilwaco at the time, compared to about 17 today.

“Westport had around 250 charter boats, now it’s about 20,” he said. “It’s just amazing how hard the industry has been hammered.”

Same across the river

“We’re a dying breed,” said Gene Kane, owner of Tackle Time Bait and Charters. “It’s a dying thing.”

Since opening in 1983, the Warrenton-based bait and charter business has had a front-row seat to the industry’s ebb and flow.

“Over the past 36 years, we’ve seen the good, the bad and the ugly,” Kane said. “After the first El Niño in 1994, we had to borrow money just to stay here. Most everyone else went down.”

Limited seasons on sturgeon and salmon — two of the most popular fisheries on the river — have left a painful scar.

“Our sturgeon used to be a year-around fishery,” Kane said.

“It went to several years with no fishing, then catch and release only,” he said. “It’s only been the last couple years that we’ve been able to get 10 days spread out. Something is better than nothing, but it puts pressure on fishermen.

“Back in the day, if the weather was too rough to go out [in the Pacific], you could just go sturgeon fishing. They don’t have that option anymore. It impacts people making that 100-mile trip to this area. If they can only catch one fish, it’s not worth it compared to back in the day when there were more options.”

Fishery managers in Oregon and Washington state set seasons and quotas based on stock assessments to protect dwindling sturgeon and salmon species.

This year, low returns and a new focus on ensuring there is enough food for Washington state’s struggling orca population are severely curtailing Chinook salmon seasons. A potentially bright note, however, are predicted strong runs of coho, which form the backbone of the popular Buoy 10 season in August and September.

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