Smelt make it past Bonneville Dam this spring

By Allen Thomas, Columbian outdoors reporter

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The massive smelt run in the Columbia River has pushed its way — at least slightly — upstream of Bonneville Dam, an unusual but not unprecedented occurrence during big run years.

Workers at the facility that handles young downstream-migrating salmon and steelhead at Bonneville Dam found one smelt in their samples on March 20 and 419 on March 21.

Given the sampling period, the estimate of smelt upstream of Bonneville Dam is more than 3,300.

It is assumed the smelt got upstream of Bonneville Dam by passing through the locks.

“That looks like the most logical path they’d take,’’ said Olaf Langness of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. “It’s not likely they’d go up the fish ladder. There’s no indication of them at the counting windows in the fish ladder.’’

The smelt at the downstream collection facility only reflect adult smelt that fall back down river. The number that remain upstream of Bonneville Dam and possibly spawned is unknown.

“We have no ideal if the tiny. delicate out-migrating larvae produced by any above Bonneville Dam spawning will survive passage through the spillways or turbines at the dam.’’ Langness said.

A 1953 document of the former Washington Department of Fisheries reports smelt begin seen occasionally as far upstream as Oregon’s Hood River.

Oregon documents from the same period report smelt in the Cascade Locks and spawning in Tanner Creek in 1953.

Langness said there are earlier reports of smelt spawning in the Hood and Klickitat rivers during 1945.

From corresponding with current and former Oregon fish managers, Langness learned that during big run years in the 1970s and early 1980s salmon anglers below the dam at Tanner Creek and Warrendale noted smelt. At least one angler reported smelt in Eagle Creek, upstream of Bonneville Dam.

Despite the large number of smelt this year, some tributaries like the Grays, Elochoman and Kalama rivers saw little or no smelt, so far.

The run is not over yet, as evident by fresh smelt migrating past Price Island in the lower Columbia this past week. Some spring chinook caught in the Columbia River test fishery near the mouth of the Willamette River have had smelt in their bellies that were ripe with eggs and milt.

“We are most likely past the peak of the run,’’ Langness said. “But there will still be some smelt arriving over the next month or two.’’

No additional harvest fisheries for smelt are contemplated for 2014. The fish are listed as threatened under the federal Endangered Species Act.

Oregon officials in the past month have confirmed smelt in the Tenmile, Coos and Coquille basins along the Oregon coast. Specimens and/or pictures were identified by local staff and confirmed by Doug Markle, a retired Oregon State University professor.