ILWACO - Lower Columbia River gillnetters were in shock after state harvest managers shut down a short but lucrative fishery targeting what were supposed to be mainly hatchery fish heading for the Willamette River.

Traditionally among the earliest arrivals of the many spring runs in the Columbia, the Willamette fish turned out to be a decided minority in the gillnetters' fish boxes during the two-day effort. Instead, more than 80 percent of the early run was estimated to be Chinook headed for the Snake River.

The perplexed managers could not even speculate on what might have caused the flip-flopped season. "It's so bizarre and unexpected," said Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife Harvest Manager Pat Frazier. He said a combination of monitoring fish visually and through coded wire-tag recoveries led to discovery of the phenomenon. "It's usually just the opposite this time of year, with the Willamette fish making up about 80 percent of the run," Frazier said.

The gillnetters got only two days of fishing in before the season was closed and were griping to everyone in sight about it. Don Riswick, 85-year-old editor of Columbia River Gillnetter, house organ of the 117-year-old Columbia River Fishermen's Protective Union, said harvesters were getting $6 per pound for the big spring Chinook. About 500 of the big fish, large from spending three years in the ocean, were landed before the gillnetters were shut down. "It's impossible," he said. "I've been fishing here since I was 13, and have never seen anything like it. It can't be like they say."

Harvest managers stuck to their guns and kept the fishery closed under heavy protest.

The fishermen were using larger mesh nets than they will be able to use later this spring, when they will fish with tangle nets to allow for the live release of wild Chinook and steelhead. They are only allowed to keep hatchery Chinook marked by a clipped fin that delineates them from wild fish listed under the Endangered Species Act.

According to Frazier, about half the fish caught so far were marked as hatchery fish, so the other half of the catch had to be released. Since managers have estimated that about 50 percent of the fish released from the nets will die anyway, the two-day fishery has already used up half of the commercial fishers' allotted impact on the upriver spring Chinook, which is split between non-Indians (2 percent) and tribes (9 percent).

Frazier said a test fishery the following week showed about a 50/50 split between Willamette and upriver Columbia Chinook, but large numbers of steelhead were showing up as well. "For every marked Chinook, there is one unmarked steelhead," Frazier said, which means that fishermen won't be able to fish their tangle nets until the proportion of steelhead encounters goes down, even though post-release mortality is about half that of the smaller mesh nets.

A small test fishery last week came up with eight of 13 Chinook of the upriver Columbia stock, with little sign of any big Willamette run. Harvest managers are expecting 145,000 upriver spring Chinook this year, with about 25,000 wild Snake fish mixed in.

A whopping 110,000 springers are predicted for the Willamette, with most expected to come from a strong return of three-ocean fish - those that spent three years in the ocean. About 85 percent of the Willamette hatchery fish are estimated to be marked, but only about 50 percent of the upriver hatchery springers.

With so many unclipped hatchery fish migrating through the basin, it has been hard to accurately count wild stocks at some dams. In this year's annual report on the basin fisheries, harvest managers reduced their earlier estimate of the number of wild spring Chinook counted at Lower Granite Dam in 2001 from over 49,000 Chinook down to 17,175 fish.

ODFW's Frazier said it's likely that the 2002 wild Snake count (34,488) will be revised in next year's report as well.

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