Netters to fish Tuesday for spring chinook in lower Columbia

By Allen Thomas, Columbian outdoors reporter

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Spring chinook numbers appear to be building in the lower Columbia River with a day of commercial fishing adopted for Tuesday and a hearing on Thursday to consider extending the sport season.

Monday is the final day of the scheduled sport season downstream of Bonneville Dam although an extension is a virtual given considering catches have been poor and not near the allocation.

Runs of 227,000 spring chinook to waters upstream of Bonneville Dam and 81,000 to tributaries downstream of the dam are forecast for 2014.

However, the Columbia is high and dirty. The average flow for March at Bonneville Dam has been 242,000 cubic feet per second compared to an average of 166,000 cubic feet per second. Dirty water dampens the sport catch.

Washington and Oregon on Monday adopted a commercial fishery on Tuesday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. from Beacon Rock downstream to the ocean. The commercials must use 4.25-inch-mesh nets. Wild chinook must be released.

Biologist Robin Ehlke of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife said the commercial fleet is expected to catch 1,900 spring chinook, of which 1,400 are of upper Columbia origin. The commercial allocation prior to a mid-May update of the run forecast is 1,735 upper Columbia spring chinook.

At $8 per pound and with an average weight of 15 pounds, the value to the net fleet is projected to be about $228,000, Ehlke said.

Commercial fishermen also are allocated 4,200 spring chinook from Oregon’s Willamette River, a number they never achieve due to running out of upper Columbia chinook first.

Seventeen test-fishing drifts on Sunday in Wahkiakum and Cowlitz counties caught 54 spring chinook and 27 steelhead. Sixty-four percent of the chinook were of upper Columbia origin.

Counts at Bonneville Dam also are improving. The numbers were 85 adult chinook on Thursday 89 on Friday and 65 on Saturday for a total of 413. Ehlke said based on the forecast and five-year average run timing about 250 chinook would be expected at Bonneville though March 29.

“My sense is there are lots of fish in the river,’’ said Harry Barber of Washougal, a member of the bistate Columbia River Recreational Adviser Group.

State biologists estimate 90 wild winter steelhead will die after being caught and released from the nets on Tuesday.

Les Clark of Chinook, a commercial fisherman, thanked the states for setting the commercial fishing times during daylight. The high river has lots of floating debris and plenty of sea lions.

“The river conditions are not the best, by far,’’ Clark said.

Liz Hamilton, executive director of the Northwest Sportfishing Industry Association, said spring chinook fishing in the lower Columbia is an $800,000 recreational industry.

Hobe Kytr of Salmon For All, an Astoria-based commercial fishing group, said the $228,000 is only the ex-vessel value paid to the netters. As the fish move through restaurants to the consumer, the value triples, he added.

Bryan Irwin, a sport fisherman, suggested a boat limit on the commercial fleet to avoid exceeding the early-season allocation.

Steve Fick of Fishhawk Fisheries, an Astoria processor, said trip limits are not needed.

“There’s such a small percentage for the consumer we need to get very possible fish for the consumer,’’ Fick said.

State officials will meet at noon on Thursday by teleconference to review sport catches and consider an angling extension.