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One Million Columbia River Spring Chinook! - by Bob Rees

Political will is the only thing standing in the way of Snake River salmon recovery, and that is where the roughly half a million license holders that fish the Columbia come in!

 

2001 Bonneville limit (left to right) Phil Lockwood, Kris Stanley, Marty Stanley, Bob Rees and Nancy Slavin.

 

After an onslaught of emergency closures and returns near historic lows for one of the most celebrated fisheries in the Pacific Northwest, the fishing community is united: We need to bring back abundant runs of Chinook to the Columbia River. And that means join-ing the growing regional effort to remove the lower Snake River dams. At long last, Northwest public officials are stepping up to address this crisis. They recognize the both the urgency for action and the opportunity before our region today. Congress-man Mike Simpson (R-ID) deserves great credit to kicking off the conversation a year ago. He’s been joined today by Washington State’s powerful senator—Patty Murray—who’s acknowledged the Snake River salmon crisis today and committed to developing and delivering a comprehensive solution by July 31st, 2022. Our recreational fishing community needs to get involved and help seize this once-in-a-generation opportunity to secure a big win for salmon and steelhead and our Northwest way of life and fishing heritage.

 

Guides and anglers like me remember the Columbia River return of 2001, topping over 416,000 spring Chinook. Anyone who really wanted to catch a Columbia River spring Chinook, could catch a Columbia River spring Chinook. If we want to see this happen again, it’s up to us. It’s that simple.

 

Bill Monroe Jr. with Marshal Strutz and a Columbia River spring Chinook.

 

Imagine catching 47 spring Chinook (30 hatchery, 17 wilds) in 3 days, a 10-fish limit by 10:00 a.m. on Easter morning and then inviting my brother out before Easter brunch at Mom and Dad’s house for an-other 2-fish limit. I won’t go too deep into the weeds, but our community has been fighting for nearly three decades to change the trajectory of Snake River salmon recovery. Rest assured, highly qualified fish biologists and conservation advocates are some the most intelligent and strategic people working on this issue every step of the way. Without our help, they cannot succeed- sport anglers must do more to ensure a future for our sport and heritage.

 

Conservationists and anglers have been together on the frontline of this battle across decades, educating and engaging people and policymakers, mobilizing our communities, keeping hope alive and our eyes on the prize: a future with abundant runs of Snake River salmon. A river with salmon in it translates to prosperity. In addition to a two-fish daily bag limit, a return to fishing at Bonneville Dam, unparalleled success for both bank and boat anglers, and fat-laden spring Chinook a regular family meal. Marinas could once again be full in March and tackle stores would be constantly restocking critical supplies.

 

A One-And-Done, Or Is 2001 Repeatable?

Whether the flood of ’96 that carried Chinook smolts rapidly downriver and over the dams—instead of through them—or the good ocean conditions like what we’re experiencing right now, these kinds of factors are out of our control. River conditions and passage survival, however, are not. With the knowledge of what it takes to recover these fish, we have the high-altitude habitat, largely intact in the upper reaches of Idaho, and we have the history, of knowing what’s possible when all things are clicking. Political will is the only thing standing in the way of Snake River salmon recovery, and that is where the roughly half a million license holders that fish the Columbia come in! A maverick within the crowd of elected leaders is Idaho’s Representative Mike Simpson, a Republican preaching the benefits of salmon recovery. Last February, Rep. Simpson, after speaking with the stakeholders who would see the greatest impact from dam removal, proposed a comprehensive plan to recover Snake River salmon. Following this, Washington state’s powerful Senator Murray recently launched a regional discussion on what we can do to replace the benefits of the Columbia River system and restore to abundance salmon and steelhead populations. You can learn more about her efforts at lsrdoptions.org. The bottom line: science shows clearly that not only is 2001 repeatable, but 2001 returns represent an average return, with the possibility of 1,000,000+ adults when outmigration and ocean conditions are aligned.

 

It’s Time Sport Anglers Step Up for Salmon

Sport anglers have a long tradition of step-ping up as powerful salmon and steelhead advocates. We’ve shut down Interstate 5 in Portland to drag our boats down the road for a sport fishing rally at Delta Park. It was an impressive show of cooperation and coordination. It also took heaps of work to pull off. We’ve done it before – and now we can do it again! We are at a unique moment to make change—now—or lose these fish forever. Don’t wait to be called, just do it. Sign the petition (www.nsiafishing.org/investnw), send a check to the NSIA, call your elected representative. Show up to a town hall meeting. Be a part of the solution. You’ll be joining the growing list of individual and business leaders that are demanding our elected leaders to engage on this issue. Together we can launch the largest salmon recovery effort in history.

 

What is our ROI

On the 2022 Return? Although our court victories and advocacy efforts will yield us an estimated 123,000 for 2022, that’s still plenty of opportunity to catch the world’s greatest tasting salmon. Market price for early season Chinook often fetches nearly $50.00/pound. We all know it’s worth it. With its deep red flesh and fat laden tissue, these purple-backed prizes are often visually identified by a dark dusky color on their chins versus the snow-white bellies and chins of Willamette bound springers. You really have a prize when you get to take one home.

 

Nic Callero with a dark-chinned Columbia springer alongside Hayden Island near Portland.

 

At the time of this writing, we have plenty of snow-pack in the Oregon Cascades and Idaho snow sites as well, indicating a fair probability of a lot of water com-ing down the Columbia River Gorge come April. High flows aren’t all the conducive to a troller’s success, but the anchor and bank fisheries may wind up being the best option for anglers during this short season. Early season models indicate we may make it through April 6th, but there’s still some shuffling that could take place before the season is actually decided.

For bank anglers, interest certainly starts by mid-March, when the upper Columbia bound springers are just start-ing, and Willamette bound springers are headed more towards their traditional peak migration (3rd week of April). Of particular interest, the larger 5-year old spring Chinook are typically earlier arriving, making it a possibility of a prize tipping the scales towards 20 pounds. A 5-year old upper Columbia bound spring Chinook
is rather rare, but not out of the realm of possibility.

 

Bank anglers should look to the minus tides that will occur in the middle of March (Morning tides), the end of March (Af-ternoon tides), and the morning tides of early April too. The stronger the tide and spring run-off, the closer to the bank these fish will run. Warm water keeps the fall Chinook deep, but all fish take the path of least resistance, and that’s against the bank when temperatures are cool and flows are strong, along with a little turbidity in the water.

 

 

Bank anglers should score with spin-n-glos, heavily scented or tipped with coon shrimp. Using coon shrimp also increases your chances for a steelhead too. Plunking off a lower Columbia River Beach such as Jones Beach near Westport, Oregon, or Wal-ton Beach or Willow Bar on Sauvie Island. Bank remember, plunking/anchoring is the only technique where fish have to come to you. You’ll want to inspire them to bite, they have too many escape routes and can easily bypass your offering.

 

My first plunking experience for lower Columbia River spring Chinook was in college, when a friend took me to Rainier to plunk during spring break. Due to my lack of knowledge of the fishery and the fact that this was kind of a “locals” beach, I had no problem letting my host do the casting, one of the few exciting things a plunker gets to do over the course of the day. They allowed me to squirt some Dr. Juice inside my spin-n-glo, I felt I needed every advantage I could gain, seeing how I was #26 rod up the beach of 28 rods that were plunking that day. Long story short, of the 4 bites the beach anglers drew that day, 3 of them came on my rod, and I took home twin twenty-pounders from the beach that day. Needless to say, the city slicker made an impression, but the credit really goes to Dr. Juice. Scenting my spin-n-glos religiously for my remaining years as a plunker continued to produce results until a private logging company shut that beach down to public access some time ago.

 

Boaters would be wise to employ similar strategies. Butting your boat up to a shallow wing dam, or along a gently sloping beach often offers as good a chance at a spring Chinook as trolling for them, particularly in higher flows. There are several wing jetties strewn throughout the lower Columbia and even along Hayden Island near Jantzen Beach. Running plugs or even plug-cut herring in the swifter flows can of-ten produce results throughout the season.

 

Boaters should adhere to the same principals as plunkers. High flows mean shore-hugging Chinook. Don’t be afraid to anchor is water as shallow as 5 feet of water. That shallow-running lane can often be the most productive.

 

There’s often several hoglines in the springtime along the beaches and outcrop-pings of the lower Columbia. Even the most reliable real estate isn’t consistently reliable since travel lanes change with flow. Do look for steep edges and river bends where springers will once again, take advantage of the path of least resistance.

 

 

Tenasillahe Island near Westport, Wing Jetty 62 near St. Helens and closer to Portland, Hayden and Lady Island can often produce results in late March and early April.

 

Trolling of course should not be overlooked as a viable strategy this season, however. If flows are going to be as robust as I think they will, it’ll be best to concentrate your trolling effort two hours before high tide and one hour after. Following that high tide exchange, flows will again force fish to gravitate towards the shoreline under typical spring conditions.

 

One advantage for Columbia River anglers that can’t be overlooked, however. If there were 700,000 returning Columbia River springers coming back, instead of 123,000 fish, your odds increase, well, 7X. Can you imagine the day when you’re sick of eating spring Chinook, and your neighbors run from you as if you were bringing them another zucchini from your garden? It’s all a possibility, if there’s the political will to do it. That’s where you come in.

 

Join us, we’ll be fighting for Columbia River salmon. Sign the petition or if you’re really ready to step into this success story, contact me directly, Bob Rees at brees@ pacifier.com. Also, check out the incredible body of work the Save Our Wild Salmon Coalition is doing by clicking over to www. wildsalmon.org or the Northwest Sportfishing Industry Association, of which Frank Amato publications is an integral partner at www.nsiafishing.org. Now is NOT the time to sit back and wait, it’s time to ensure a future for Columbia River salmon and our grandchildren waiting for this Pacific Northwest bounty.

 

Bob Rees is a fishing guide, publisher of The Guide’s Forecast and member of several fishing related industry and conservation organizations. He can be reached at brees@pacifier.com.