Allen Thomas: Summer, fall fishing seasons take lots of talking

By Allen Thomas, Columbian outdoors reporter

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It's a long process — and a long-winded one — that leads to the summer and fall salmon fishing dates and rules for the Columbia River.

A step in that journey happens in mid-March each year when state officials meet in Vancouver with sport and commercial fishermen to discuss tweaks to the regulations and what's actually practical given the constraints of the federal Endangered Species Act.

That session was Wednesday.

A zillion ideas and scenarios were floated and it all depends on your paradigm as to what's relevant and what's idle talk.

With so many topics on the table, I have to be subjective and cherrypick the material I think important and discard the rest. With that caveat, here's my oversimplified account:

Fall chinook

Washington and Oregon have modeled three sport-commercial Columbia River fishing scenarios linked somewhat to the ocean salmon options adopted by the Pacific Fishery Management Council last week.

The options have Buoy 10 season at the Columbia River mouth open for chinook retention through Aug. 28, Aug. 31 and Labor Day (Sept. 3).

Butch Smith of the Ilwaco Charter Association pointed out that in 2011 — a year of record-high fall chinook catches in the Columbia — that Buoy 10 closed for retention effective Aug. 29.

Labor Day was not until Sept. 5.

With chinook retention allowed, Buoy 10 fueled 19,800 anglers trips a week, Smith said. With chinook closed, the trips dropped to 5,200 a week.

Fishing at Buoy 10 is huge to the economy of the southern Washington coast, he said.

"Once you leave, that's it,'' Smith said. "We don't have other industries down there.''

Having Buoy 10 chinook season open to Labor Day is a big deal, he added.

"Buoy 10 on the beach for chinook by Aug. 28 is unacceptable to my area,'' Smith said

There are rumblings the Canadians might trim back their ocean harvests a bit this summer, making a few more chinook available in the United States.

Buoy 10 would be logical spot to allocate some of that surplus if it materialized, Smith said.

"Our company wants Buoy10 to go through Labor Day,'' added Dan Grogan, owner of Fishermen's Marine and Outdoor, a Portland sporting goods retailer.

Summer chinook

Fishing for summer chinook in the lower Columbia opened June 16 a year ago. It closed for chinook retention on July 17 — two weeks earlier than scheduled — with a catch of 5,100 kept and 2,800 released.

The lower Columbia exceeded its allocation by about 2,000 summer chinook, said Robin Ehlke of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.

About 4,200 summer chinook will be available to sportsmen downstream of Bonneville Dam in 2012. About 40 percent of the catch in 2011 occurred in the first two days — June 16 and 17.

Cindy LeFleur, Columbia River policy coordinator for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, said the sport handle of summer chinook gets bigger each year.

Anglers are getting more adept at catch summer chinook, said John North of the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. This summer's allocation might be caught in 10 days, he added.

The limit has been two summer chinook per day. There was talk of cutting that to one per day, although the savings is minimal since few anglers catch two per day.

If there are surplus spring chinook following the mid-May run update, should fishing reopen immediately or on a timetable so the spring season segues into the June 16 summer chinook start?

Most at Wednesday's meeting wanted to re-start spring fishing to allow it to flow into the summer fishery.

Sportsmen also asked that the gillnet fishery opener be delay until a week or so after the sport season starts. But the commercials want fishing on the nights of June 17 and June 25.

Sockeye

A mega-run of 462,000 sockeye is forecast to enter the Columbia headed for the Okanogan and Wenatchee rivers. Non-Indians get 1 percent — 4,600 fish.

The commercials will catch about 1,400 in their chinook season, leaving 3,200 for sportsmen.

Although sockeye rarely bite on sport gear, there will be so many in the lower Columbia that some will get taken incidental to chinook or steelhead fishing.

The consensus on Wednesday was to allow sport sockeye retention whenever chinook or steelhead fishing is open. Once the allocation is caught, then retention should end.

None of the above is a done deal. State biologists will plug the array of sport and commercial wants into a computer model and see how they trade off.

The next step is a meeting at 9 a.m. March 26 in Room No. 172 of the Natural Resources Building, 1111 Washington St. S.E., Olympia.

All ocean and Columbia River fisheries will be finalized on April 1-6 when the Pacific Fishery Management Council meets in Seattle.

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