Bonneville pool spring chinook fishing a touchy topic

By Allen Thomas, Columbian outdoors reporter

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Spring chinook angling will open by Saturday in the Columbia River all the way from Astoria to up to the Washington-Oregon border with one exception: The 40 miles between Bonneville Dam and the Tower Island power lines near The Dalles stay closed to boat fishing.

Sportsmen in the White Salmon area can head east, west or do what most do — fish at the mouth of Wind River or Drano Lake.

Lance Beckman of White Salmon is a retired federal fisheries research biologist and a member of the bi-state Columbia River Recreational Advisory Group.

“I figure the area at the mouth of the Wind is about .33-square mile and Drano Lake about .5 square mile,’’ Beckman said. “It’s about 1.4 percent of the surface area of Bonneville pool. The question I keep getting asked is ‘Why do we only get a lousy 1.4 percent of Bonneville pool to fish?’’’

As anyone who fishes the Wind or Drano knows, the crowding gets extreme.

“It’s literally combat fishing out there,’’ Beckman said. “It almost comes to fisticuffs.’’

The closure of most of Bonneville pool to boat fishermen has a decade-old history, said Guy Norman, regional director of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.

The upper Columbia spring chinook runs rebounded in 2000 and fishing seasons were allowed in April starting in 2001 after decades of closure.

Fishing in main Columbia was limited to fin-clipped hatchery spring chinook. But the hatchery chinook headed for Carson National Fish Hatchery on the Wind River and Little White Salmon National Fish Hatchery just upstream from Drano Lake were not clipped.

To allow a season where any chinook was fair game at Wind or Drano, but only fin-clipped fish could be caught in the Columbia, would have been an enforcement nightmare.

An angler could have caught an unclipped fish in the Columbia and simply said he got in at the mouth of the Wind or Drano.

“When fishing reopened, we had a management concern with how to differentiate Wind-Drano catch versus main-stem catch,’’ Norman said. “We couldn’t risk having Wind-Drano fish count against the main-stem share.’’

After discussing the issue with the four Columbia River treaty tribes, Washington and Oregon opted to keep most of the Bonneville pool closed to non-Indians.

But hatchery spring chinook have been marked for years now and only fin-clipped salmon are taken in all locations.

Tribal perspective

Stuart Ellis, a biologist for the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, said there still would be problems with sport catch monitoring and accounting if Bonneville pool were opened.

“The Wind River bubble fishery — it extends a fair ways out into the mainstem — and Drano are both counted as tributary fisheries and yet they are right next to the mainstem,’’ he said. “It would be a real struggle to sort out the catch if both the mainstem and these ‘tributary’ areas were open at once.

“A person could launch out of the Wind and theoretically catch fish in both areas. It would be difficult to make sure people recorded and reported the catch in the right area and if the catch got mixed up samplers might record coded-wire tags from the wrong area. There is a whole host of logistical difficulties with having both areas open at once. ‘’ 

Ellis agreed Wind River and Drano Lake get jammed, but they also stay open when catch allocations for the Columbia are reached.

“They often have a larger catch than the entire rest of the Zone 6 (mid-Columbia) sport fishery clear up to McNary Dam,’’ he said. “Drano often has much more forgiving weather than the mainstem, too. Drano and the Wind River have next to no wild fish in them, so anglers get to keep virtually everything they catch.’’

If the lower end of Bonneville pool were open, it likely would draw anglers from the metro area, reducing the already limited spring chinook fishing opportunity farther east in Washington and Oregon — unless more fish were allocated from the lower Columbia River upstream.

“It could end up shortening the fishery for bank anglers below John Day Dam and for the folks who like to fish up in the Boardman-to-Umatilla area,’’ Ellis said.

Norman also said opening lower Bonneville pool would reduce fish and time on the water for anglers in The Dalles and John Day reservoirs.

“Fishing for spring chinook is growing in popularity in these areas and there is a limited number to harvest,’’ he said. “We do see added benefit of providing more opporunity closer to home for fishers farther up the river.’’

Norman said there is nothing in the 2008-17 Columbia River management agreement that specifically prohibits non-Indian fishing in Bonneville pool, but acknowledges it is a sensitive issue with the tribes.

Ellis said that sensitivity is particularly true in early spring, when the tribes are trying to complete their spring ceremonial fishing.

“In the past several years there has been, from the perspectives of the tribes, a lot of sport and commercial fishing in Zones 1-5 (downstream of Bonneville) early in the season when few fish have passed Bonneville,’’ he said. “They would rather not see a lot of sport fishing going on in Zone 6 also when they are still trying to do their ceremonial fishing.’’

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