Spring run beats prediction; jacks signal even stronger run next year

BONNEVILLE - With the 2003 spring Chinook count at Bonneville Dam officially over June 1, the spring Chinook run came in at 196,000, not like the barn burners of the past few years, yet still one of the best returns in the past ten years. It was only four short years ago when the spring run was barely one-fifth the size of this year's return.

Tribal fishers were able to get another three-day gillnet period in May after harvest managers bumped up the run estimate to 203,000 Chinook (to the mouth of the Columbia). Tribal fishermen got an extra break - when the run estimate tops 200,000, harvest rules bump up their percentage of the catch.

But even better news is the current jack count that has signaled next year's run could be a monster like 2001 and 2002. Nearly 400,000 springers showed up in 2001, and 269,000 fish appeared the following year. Next year could potentially top 2002 and become the second best count since the dam was completed in 1938.

Jacks are precocious males that return to spawn a year before the main body of the run shows up and pinning one's predictions on jack counts alone has become a somewhat dicey proposition. WDFW harvest manager Cindy LeFleur said state and tribal folks use these jack counts to estimate the coming year's two-ocean component of the spring run, then estimate the three-ocean component from the size of the two-ocean return. In the last ten years, it's a ratio that's been around 15 percent.

But this year's 200,000-fish-plus spring run was made up of an unusually large percentage of three-ocean springers. They have accounted for about 50 percent of the run instead of 15 percent to 25 percent seen in other recent years.

If next year's return maintains the high proportion of fish that return to the river after three years in the ocean, the 14,000-plus jacks so far counted at Bonneville Dam (more than twice the 10-year average) suggest the possibility that next year's run could be over 300,000 fish, which would make it the second best count ever recorded at the dam.

The high jack counts track with upriver dams as well. At Lower Granite on the Snake River, about 6,400 jacks have been counted so far this spring, more than three times the 10-year average, along with 58,000 adults. This year's low adult numbers, compared to the previous two years (75,000 in 2002, 172,000 in 2001) reflects the fact that about one-third as many fish were released from Snake Basin hatcheries in 2001 than in the earlier years that produced the big numbers.

But some experts say these excellent jack numbers could mean that the Snake may be home to more than 200,000 spring Chinook next year. Only nine years ago, a paltry 43 spring jacks were counted at Lower Granite, a dismal precursor to an adult run that numbered only 1,105 spring Chinook.

Meanwhile, harvest managers announced that the Columbia River's summer run, estimated at nearly 88,000 Chinook, is pegged as the second largest since 1969. It's good enough to open recreational fishing between the lower Columbia and Pasco, only the second time it's occurred since 1973. A fishery occurred last year as well.

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