Gillnetters to fish in lower Columbia on Tuesday

By Allen Thomas, Columbian outdoors reporter

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The gillnet fleet will return to the lower Columbia River for six hours on Tuesday to catch spring chinook salmon.

Washington and Oregon adopted a commercial fishing period from 12:30 to 6:30 p.m. from Beacon Rock downstream to the ocean with 4 1/4-inch-mesh nets.

John North of the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife said the netters are projected to catch about 3,000 chinook on Tuesday.

Among those 3,000 salmon will be a projected 2,350 upper Columbia-origin chinook. Those fish, added to the 1,597 chinook caught a week ago, will bring the commercials to 67 percent of their early-season allocation of 5,914 upper Columbia chinook.

Water conditions in the Columbia are not conducive to a good sport or commercial catch.

Streamflow at Bonneville Dam has been 330,000 cubic feet per second compared to an average of 191,000 for this time frame. The water temperature is 45 degrees, compared to a five-year average of 46.2 for the date.

North said visibility is improving. At Beaver Army Terminal on the Oregon side downstream of Longview, water clarity has improved to 2 feet after being down to 6 inches earlier.

Stuart Ellis of the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission said the treaty tribes are opposed to more non-Indian fishing until the strength of the 2012 run become more apparent.

A strong return of 314,000 adult spring chinook is forecast to enter the Columbia headed for tributaries upstream of Bonneville Dam.

But through Sunday, the cumulative count at the dam is just 98 chinook, the third lowest since 1943.

Ellis said if the run is timed the same as the latest on record it projects to 97,000.

"To make forecast, this run has to be two weeks later than the latest run we've ever seen,'' he said. "You're betting on a new record-late-timed run.''

Steve Williams, an assistant administrator for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, said it is too early to give up on the 2012 forecast, although the run is late and might be smaller than anticipated.

"I don't believe it's time to panic yet,'' he said. "It's not time to give up on the run size yet. ... There's going to be a moment when these fish do show up.''

April 10 will be the latest riverwide, full-fleet gillnet fishing period in a decade.

"Biologically, perhaps, it is not any later than last year,'' said Guy Norman, regional director for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Les Clark of the Northwest Gillnetters Association said he remains optimistic a big run is on the way.

"Everything is looking positive,'' Clark said. "It's just late.''

Sport fishing in the lower Columbia is open through Friday. State officials will meet by telephone at noon on Thursday to consider a sport-fishing extension.