COLUMBIA RIVER - Apparently for the fifth year in a row spawning upriver spring Chinook salmon are biding their time before launching themselves up and over the fish ladders at Bonneville Dam, the first hydro project they encounter on the Columbia River.

Through Wednesday, April 1, 170 Chinook had been counted passing the dam, according to data posted online by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. That's comparable to counts through April 1 in each of the past four years, which ranged from 199 to 37. (By April 5, the count had climbed to 336, including a season-high 65 on the 5th.)

But it is far below April 1 averages for the 1995-2004 period. That 10-year average through April 1 is 2,882 and the April Fool's Day daily average is 937. The April 2 average daily count for that period jumps to 1,055, the first of more than a month and a half of plus 1,000 days.

The timing of the Bonneville passage has also changed. Over the past four years the average date by which 50 percent of the returning upriver Chinook run has passed is May 6. In the prior decade the average date was April 25-26. The "upriver" spring Chinook are bound for hatcheries and tributary spawning beds above Bonneville in Idaho, Oregon and Washington.

Sea lions are camped out"It has shifted," the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife's Cindy LeFleur said of the passage timing. She theorized that a large congregation of sea lions camped out below the dam could be causing the fish to pause. Historically a few sea lions would wander inland each year. But over the past 10 years their presence has grown. In recent years as many as 100 sea lions have swum the 146 river miles upstream to prey on salmon, sturgeon and other fishes below the dam.

"There are fish in the area," LeFleur said of the Lower Columbia. But for some reason the Chinook haven't been passing the dam in large numbers. The count last Wednesday was 10.

The sport fishing world is waiting impatiently for the run to pick up speed.

An aerial survey conducted on March 27 tallied 1,600 boats and 600 bank anglers on the river - up from just 600 boats and 300 bank anglers at the same time last year.

So while creel census estimates showed that anglers kept 2,224 Chinook salmon last week, only about one in 10 anglers took home a springer.

"The number of boats and anglers has really ramped up in the past couple of weeks," said Joe Hymer, a WDFW fish biologist. "But fishing has been like the weather - it will heat up one day, and then cool off the next. There's a lot of pent-up demand out there, and everybody's just waiting for that warm spring day of good fishing."

Commercial successIn the commercial fleet's first outing on the river's mainstem, the area from Hayden Island upstream to Beacon Rock, they caught 370 Chinook, making 71 deliveries to fish buyers. The fish were fetching from $7.50 to $8 per pound, LeFleur said.

The gillnetters' success rate was also relatively low considering the number of boats involved, LeFleur said. State observers witnessed 44 Chinook netted during 75 drifts.

The spring Chinook fishery on the Lower Columbia River will continue to draw the most attention from anglers in the weeks ahead, Hymer said. For that fishery, he recommends sinking a flatfish or cut plug herring fairly deep - 20 to 30 feet - and resisting the urge to set the hook too quickly.

"The fish are fairly lethargic in the current cold-water conditions," he said. "My advice is fish deep, and give the fish time to grab your lure or bait."

Hymer reminds Columbia River anglers that shad and fin-clipped steelhead may be retained only on days open to fishing for adipose fin-clipped Chinook.

This year through April 18, salmon fishing is open three days a week - Thursday through Saturday - downstream from the west power lines on Hayden Island at Portland to Buoy 10 at the river mouth. From the power lines upstream to Bonneville Dam, the fishery is open Wednesdays through Saturdays through April 22.

Below Bonneville Dam the daily salmonid bag limit is six fin-clipped fish, no more than two adult salmon or steelhead or one of each. No more than one may be an adult Chinook. Wild Chinook and wild steelhead must be released.

A daily limit of one hatchery adult Chinook is also in effect on the Kalama and Lewis rivers, where hatchery returns are expected to be relatively low. One hatchery adult Chinook will also be the daily limit on Deep River whenever the section of the Columbia River downstream from Hayden Island is open for salmon fishing.

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