Outlook better for Willamette in spring

By Al Thomas, Columbian staff writer

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Considering how fiesty the sport-commercial feud over Columbia River spring chinook salmon and sturgeon got earlier this year, the just-completed meetings in Vancouver and Astoria were downright boring.

But there were bits of information that came out of interest to local sportsmen.

Among them:

n Willamette spring chinook pre-forecast: Chris Kern of the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife said the spring chinook return in 2010 to the Willamette River is expected to be better than the past couple of dismal years.

“It’s on the mend,’’ Kern said. “There was a fairly good jack return, and I think we’re looking at something similar to 2005 and 2006.’’

Well, in both of those years, the return was just shy of 60,000 spring salmon. The run was 27,000 in 2008 and about 40,000 this year.

n Sport fleet monitoring: Kern said the states have money to do more monitoring and sampling of the lower Columbia sport fishery for spring chinook. This is something the commercials have wanted for years, feeling they are overly scrutinized compared to sportsmen.

“We’re still figuring out how we’ll do this,’’ Kern said. “It’s hard to do because the sport fleet is so spread out. We could ride in a guide boat, or drive around and observe from the water. There are places on shore where you could observe the boats, figuring the fish not kept were wild ones.’’

n Spring chinook netting: Reductions are coming to spring chinook fishing in March and April in order to be sure the treaty Indian tribes and non-Indians catch roughly the same number of upper Columbia-bound spring salmon.

There has been a catch imbalance favoring non-Indians of about 15,700 over the past two years.

At the Vancouver meeting, there was talk of having the sport fleet catch its share in the lower, clearer water of March and April, and the netters getting theirs in May, when the flow is higher and dirtier and less conducive to sport catch.

That idea didn’t sit well with the commercials at the Astoria meeting, who pointed out the Columbia is full of shad in May, and would clog 4¼-inch tangle nets in no time.

n No allocation fight: Jim Wells of Salmon For All, a commercial group, said the gillnetters do not plan to fight the sportsmen again in front of the Washington and Oregon fish and wildlife commissions over salmon allocations.

The commercials do want to maintain their existing share, though, he added.

n Bonneville oversize sturgeon — There’s a lot of interest by both sportsmen and commercial fishermen to do away with the catch-and-release sport-fishery during the spring downstream of Bonneville Dam that targets on oversize sturgeon.

“The spawning process is stressful enough, then add being on the end of a 9/0 hook for 45 minutes,’’ said Butch Smith of the Ilwaco Charter Association. “It doesn’t make sense to put a bunch of crazy yahoos on spawning fish. We’ve never liked it, but it’s becoming a critical issue now.’’

Gillnetter Steve Gray of Seaview, Wash., had an even better quote: “We wouldn’t kick our pregnant wives out of the car and make them run for five miles.’’

n Sturgeon rule changes: Smith of the Ilwaco Charter Association called for a 45-minimum size limit for sturgeon everywhere in Washington.

Currently, there is a 45-inch minimum in the estuary in the summer and 42-inch minimum elsewhere.

Those are total length minimums. Washington and Oregon have switched the slot limit measurements on sturgeon to fork lengths.

It was suggested in Astoria on Tuesday that the estuary sport season open in mid-May with several days of the week closed, thus extending the fishing deep into July before filling the quota.

Ron Saalborn of Chinook, formerly a teacher at Columbia River High School, said the estuary is a pleasant place to fish in July while waiting for August, when the coho in the ocean are larger.

Currently, the season opens daily beginning on Mother’s Day weekend and tries to stay open through the Fourth of July holiday.

n Meeting schedule: The Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission will take more public testimony on spring chinook and sturgeon when it meets Jan. 8-9, and final decisions will come at its Feb. 5-6 session. Locations for those commission meetings were not available as of Wednesday.

Oregon’s commission will make its decisions Feb. 5 in Salem.

Final details between the two states will be ironed out when the Columbia River Compact meets Feb. 18.

Allen Thomas covers hunting, fishing, hiking and other outdoor topics for The Columbian. He can be reached at 360-735-4555 or by e-mail at al.thomas@columbian.com.