Fall chinook salmon make record return to Columbia River

Old mark already surpassed, with three months left in run

By Allen Thomas, Columbian outdoors reporter

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NORTH BONNEVILLE — With every passing adult fall chinook salmon at Bonneville Dam, a monster Columbia River return becomes a new record.

On Friday, the season's cumulative count topped the old mark of 610,000 tallied in 2003. Through Monday, the count totals 698,592.

The fall chinook run continues into December.

Why is this year's return a record?

Stuart Ellis of the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission said the strong numbers are due in part to several high spring river flows, spilling water over dams, and good ocean conditions.

"This fall chinook run is not only big, but it's got a lot of natural-origin fish going to a lot of different places," Ellis said.

"This year's run of upriver fall chinook is through the roof, and a positive sign that regional efforts to rebuild this salmon population are making a difference,'' said Guy Norman, regional director of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Upriver fall chinook migrate north off Canada and Alaska, Norman said.

Obviously, ocean survival conditions were good, he added.

The Columbia River Technical Advisory Committee met Monday and projects 832,500 upriver bright fall chinook will enter the river in 2013. The initial forecast was for 434,600.

The Bonneville count is only a portion of the run. Sport and commercial catches in the lower Columbia add to the total.

Chinook crossing Bonneville Dam beginning Aug. 1 are classified as fall fish.

The fall run includes wild fish headed to the Hanford Reach, the free-flowing stretch of the Columbia downstream of Priest Rapids Dam. The fall run also includes hatchery chinook heading to a variety of facilities including Priest Rapids Hatchery on the upper Columbia and Lyons Ferry Hatchery on the lower Snake River.

The Technical Advisory Committee initially forecast that 36,300 tule (dark) stock fall chinook destined for Spring Creek National Fish Hatchery at Underwood in eastern Skamania County would enter the Columbia.

That number was upgraded on Monday to 69,000.

The highest daily chinook count at Bonneville Dam prior to this fall was 45,884 on Sept. 11, 2003.

That daily count was topped three times between Sept. 7 and 10, with the single-day fall chinook mark now being 63,870, tallied on Sept. 9.

Sport fishermen took advantage of the megarun of fall chinook.

At Buoy 10, the name given to the fishery between the mouth of the Columbia River and Tongue Point upstream of Astoria, the sport catch was the best in 25 years.

According to Washington and Oregon biologists, sportsmen made 37,200 trips from Aug. 1 to 22, keeping 15,500 chinook and releasing 4,100.

From Aug. 23 through Sept. 1, only hatchery chinook could be kept at Buoy 10. Biologists estimate there were 20,900 trips, with 6,800 chinook kept and 8,600 released.

Between Tongue Point and Bonneville Dam, the sport catch is the third highest since at least 1980.

So far, there have been 114,357 trips, with 26,137 adult chinook kept and 7,248 released. The record for kept chinook catch is 28,169 in 2011.

Joe Hymer, a biologist for the Pacific States Marine Fisheries Commission, noted there are lots of jacks, 3-year-olds and 4-year-olds in this fall run, a good sign for a big return next year.

Ellis also said the recent counts are exciting.

"If we manage these fish correctly, and do the things that we need to do to take care of their habitat and take care of their passage conditions, it's possible to get big runs of fish," Ellis said.