A fall chinook run for the record books — 1.6 million salmon, the largest since counting began at Bonneville Dam — is forecast for the Columbia River in 2014.
State, federal and tribal biologists are predicting 1,602,900 fall chinook are headed for the Columbia, 26 percent better than the unexpected high of 1.26 million of 2013.
“If there is ever a year folks want to take time off and catch fish, this would be the year,’’ said Robert Moxley, a member of the bistate Columbia River Recreational Adviser Group. “I’m more excited than you can possibly imagine.’’
The fall chinook forecast comes on the heels of a prediction for a huge run of 964,000 coho salmon destined for the Columbia River.
Topping the long list of good news is that 973,300 “upriver brights’’ make up more than half of the 1.6 million forecast. Upriver brights are primarily wild salmon originating from Hanford Reach, the free-flowing stretch of the Columbia River in central Washington, along with Priest Rapids Hatchery and two Snake River hatcheries.
Upriver brights are the most prized of the stocks of fall chinook.
As table fare, an upriver bright fall chinook pales compared to an upper Columbia spring chinook. But they are as good as summer chinook and superior to coho.
Fall chinook are larger than spring chinook.
Two-thirds of the upriver brights are expected to be 4-year-olds, approximately 12 to 18 pounds, compared to 5- to 8-pound 3-year-olds.
“This is an incredible outlook for fall salmon, said Guy Norman, regional director for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. “I would never have bet on this kind of run strength occurring in the Columbia during my career.’’
Norman said he remembers when there were not enough upriver brights to reach the 40,000 spawning goal.
“The fact that we are now expecting over 1 million upriver bright stock is incredible,’’ he said.
The fall chinook run is a combination of seven stocks.
The second largest stock, after the upriver brights, is forecast to be the bright stock headed for the Bonneville, The Dalles and John Day pools at 310,600.
Returns to hatcheries on lower Columbia tributaries such as the Cowlitz, Kalama and Washougal are forecast at 110,000, which is about average.
Returns of the lower Columbia wild stock — primarily a bright stock headed to the North Fork of the Lewis River plus the Cowlitz and Sandy — are forecast to be 34,200. That would be the largest return since 1989.
Spring Creek National Fish Hatchery in eastern Skamania County is predicted to produce 115,100 fall chinook, 40 percent above average.
“I’m still amazed the forecast came out that much,’’ said Stuart Ellis of the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission.
Ellis and Norman both said the massive salmon numbers are likely the result of good survival of juveniles in the Columbia River coupled with an ocean rich in food.
“If we get some decent water when these fish need it, and manage the dams not to kill too many, we can have these numbers of fish,’’ Ellis said. “The ocean can’t do it unless the freshwater puts a lot of fish out.’’
Norman said the big returns forecast this year can be a beginning.
“If this region remains committed to actions that benefit salmon survival, there’s a good chance we’ll see more years like this in the future,’’ he said.