Wandering pink salmon set record return in Columbia River

No one’s quite sure to which streams fish are headed

By Allen Thomas, Columbian outdoors reporter

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Pink salmon — not commonly found in the Columbia River — have been counted at a record number this fall at Bonneville Dam, with some traveling as far upstream as the Snake River.

Through Tuesday, the seasonal tally of pinks, also known as humpies, at Bonneville is 3,672. The old mark was 637 in 2003, said Joe Hymer, a Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife biologist.

Tuesday’s daily count was nine at Bonneville, as the run is nearly complete.

Thirty-five pinks have made it as far upstream as Ice Harbor Dam, the first dam on the Snake River.

Pinks are the smallest of fall-spawning salmon, averaging 3 to 5 pounds.

In Washington, they return only on odd-numbered years with minor exceptions.

Only six times dating back to 1938 has the pink count at Bonneville totaled more than 100.

Pinks are found all around the Pacific Rim, including northern Japan.

In North America, the southern end of their range normally is Puget Sound or the Olympic Peninsula.

Hymer said little is known about where the pinks spawn upstream of Bonneville Dam, although some use the lower Wind River.

Like tule chinook, pinks spawn in the lower reaches of tributaries.

Most pinks seen in the Columbia River system are in the Cowlitz River near the confluence of the Toutle, Hymer said.

Washington state regulations do not allow sport retention of pinks in the Columbia River. Oregon rules are less clear.

Pinks are known to have a relatively high rate of straying from their natal stream and spawning somewhere else.

Almost 6 million pinks are forecasted to return to Puget Sound this year and 17 million were predicted back to the Fraser River in southern British Columbia.

John North, an Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife biologist, said the presumption is the pinks in the Columbia are strays from Puget Sound, but that is not known for sure.

“Every once in a while we find one in a spawning survey, but it’s pretty darn rare,’’ he said.

Pinks have strayed this fall as far south as California.

There’s also a record run of pinks this year in the Yuba River, according to Duane Massa of the Pacific States Marine Fisheries Commission in Chico, Calif.

That run is at two.