The gillnet fleet is expected to catch about 3,000 spring chinook salmon on Tuesday in a 12-hour opener from Beacon Rock to the mouth of the Columbia River.
Washington and Oregon officials on Monday adopted a fishing period of 7 a.m. Tuesday to 7 p.m. with 41/4-inch mesh nets. It is the first commercial fishing period in 2012 targeting on salmon.
John North of the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife said the fleet's catch is likely to range from 2,500 to 3,500 chinook. Among those would be a projected 2,000 upper Columbia-origin spring chinook, which would be about 34 percent of the 5,900 upper Columbia salmon allocated to the commercials in the early portion of the season.
The Columbia is high, muddy and cold.
"Nothing is normal right now,'' said Les Clark of Chinook, representing the Northwest Gillnetters Association. "It's going to be a slow fishery.''
A big run of 314,000 spring chinook destined for upstream of Bonneville Dam is forecast to enter the Columbia, along with 83,000 for Oregon's Willamette River.
Yet the count through Sunday at Bonneville Dam is 41 chinook.
Bruce Jim of the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission said there never has been a big return when the cumulative count at Bonneville is this small this far into the spring.
But spring chinook returns have been late in the past five years.
Robin Ehlke of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife said the 41chinook at Bonneville compares to 37 on the same date in 2011 and a five-year average of 49.
Jim suggested gillnetting initially be limited to downstream of Kelley Point, where the Willamette flows into the Columbia. Pete Hassemer of the Idaho Department of Fish and Game made a similar suggestion in order to shift harvest toward Willamette-origin chinook.
Four test net boats on Sunday made 16 drifts and caught 55 chinook and 12 steelhead. Ninety percent of the chinook were fin-clipped, while only four of the steelhead were wild.
North said the commercials are expected to kill 55 wild steelhead in the process of releasing them from their nets. That would be 18 percent of their allowed incidental kill of wild winter steelhead.
Gary Soderstrom, a commercial fisherman, said everything is late this spring. Plants and trees that normally have bloomed by now have not even leafed out, he added.
"Nature is late,'' he said.
Soderstrom, too, said fishing will be slow.
"We're going to need some time in this mud,'' he said. "It's going to be tough.''
Steve Williams, an assistant administrator for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, said he was not concerned yet about the slow start to the spring chinook run.
"High, cold water, debris, turbidity, it's not unusual to see these numbers,'' Williams said.
Sport fishing in the lower Columbia is closed on Tuesday to allow the commercials to fish in the daylight without conflict with the angling armada.
Several netters asked for a future Tuesday to be set aside, assuming their allocation will not be caught in the first period.
Sport fishing in the lower Columbia is scheduled to be closed beginning Saturday.
The states will hold a teleconference beginning at 10 a.m. Thursday to review sport catches and consider a fishing extension.