Big smelt return likely slowing Columbia spring chinook fishing

By Allen Thomas, Columbian outdoors reporter

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The massive numbers of smelt in the lower Columbia River — some as far upstream as the Sandy River — likely are the reason for such poor spring chinook fishing, an Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife biologist says.

For the week ending Sunday, lower Columbia anglers made 9,912 trips, keeping 360 spring chinook and releasing 127. That's a salmon per 20.3 trips.

"Last week's catch rates were likely affected by a large abundance of smelt, many of which are nearing the end of their life cycle and at least some of which have made it as far upstream as the Sandy River,'' said Jimmy Watts of ODFW.

"Dead and dying smelt were easily visible in most areas of the Columbia, both near the shoreline and on the surface of the river,'' Watts said. "Large numbers of California sea lions were also observed moving upstream last week, including many small individual animals.''

But there's evidence to debate Watts' conclusion.

A year ago, a similar sample size of anglers found a catch average of 18.4 rods per spring chinook.

"Smelt might be playing a part in the slow bite, but if you look at the two years (2012 and 2013) side-by-side, maybe they aren't so much of a factor,'' said Joe Hymer of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.

From Feb. 1 through Sunday, there have been an estimated 30,900 angler trips with 784 spring chinook kept and 243 released. The expectation for the entire season was 6,100 kept chinook from 63,000 trips, so about 13 percent of the catch allocation has been caught.

"The catch rate has been similar, but the number of trips is only about half of last year,'' Hymer said.

Spring chinook destined for Bonneville Dam have been about 75 percent of the kept catch during March.

The chinook counts at Bonneville Dam were six adults and one jack on Sunday and eight adults on Saturday. That brings the cumulative count for 2013 to 137 adults.

The flow at Bonneville is a mild 139,600 cubic feet per second with a temperature of 43.9 degrees.

Spring chinook season in the lower Columbia is scheduled to be closed beginning April 6. A joint state hearing is scheduled for April 3 to review catches.

No smelt possession — Smelt may be plentiful this year, but they remain listed as threatened under the federal Endangered Species Act and are off-limits.

Hymer said sportsmen who pick up dead smelt off the shoreline to save as sturgeon bait would be afoul of the law.

"You can't possess fresh Columbia River smelt,'' he said.

The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife issued a reminder that the arrival of smelt in the Sandy River does not mean an open season.

“We want to make sure people remember that eulachon smelt are now protected and need to be left alone,” said Todd Alsbury, district fish biologist for ODFW. “Smelt arrive in waves, and in the past when one was seen in the Sandy River within hours lots of people were fishing for them. We want to make sure that doesn’t happen this year.”

No one knows how big this year's smelt run is, but they've been in the Cowlitz, Kalama, Lewis and Sandy rivers, plus many spawn in the Columbia itself, Hymer said.

"There are a lot of smelt,'' he said. "Is it just a good year? Is it the start of a upward curve again? There's history that shows the smelt are cyclic, that they almost disappear then come back again.''

Beaches along the lower Columbia are littered with dead smelt.

"The seagulls aren't even that interested any more,'' Hymer said.