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April 16, 2021

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2021 salmon fishing seasons await final decision

North of Falcon process also sets quotas for various species

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Guide Matt Eleazer of East Fork Outfitters and a client with a Columbia River fall chinook. Anglers can expect more opportunity to catch both fall and summer chinook this year, with improved returns expected.
Guide Matt Eleazer of East Fork Outfitters and a client with a Columbia River fall chinook. Anglers can expect more opportunity to catch both fall and summer chinook this year, with improved returns expected. (Photo courtesy Matt Eleazer of East Fork Outfitters) Photo Gallery

The North of Falcon (NOF) process is in the act of finishing up, and the 2021 salmon seasons are being fleshed out.

The NOF is the annual process of dividing the available catch of salmon in the ocean and rivers north of Cape Falcon, Ore., between stakeholders and is set for completion on Tuesday, April 13.

With most salmon runs on the rebound, and more fish available, the process has been without as much controversy as has been the case in recent years.

As usual, some species have fared better than others, with fall and summer chinook runs looking fairly good, and coho runs looking even better. However, steelhead continue to struggle, and sockeye numbers will dip some this year.

Within the good runs are a few lackluster segments that will constrain fisheries in the ocean and rivers, and managers this year face a challenge offering opportunities for anglers that allow harvest on the strong stocks, while protecting the weak ones.

The NOF, which involves a series of public meetings with federal, state, tribal and industry representatives and stakeholder citizens, coincides with the spring meetings of the Pacific Fishery Management Council (PMFC), the federal agency responsible for setting ocean salmon seasons off the Pacific coast.

In addition, Oregon and Washington hold meetings to complete the setting of state seasons outside the parameters of federal managers.

Some stakeholders, while happy for a return to better fisheries, decry the process itself as being unmanageable.

“All the controversies were back in play this year,” said guide Bill Monroe Jr. “But it’s not like it used to be because of the high numbers of returning fish. With more fish there was less bickering”

Monroe still takes issue with the way the process is designed.

“North of Falcon is broken: it’s a convoluted, very in-depth way of setting seasons, and it isn’t working,” he said.

Monroe points to issues such as fighting between the ocean charter fleet and in-river fishing interests, and stake holders from other areas trying to influence decisions concerning local fisheries. He also cites a lack of support for sport anglers from state fisheries managers, and non-concurrency between the states of Washington and Oregon concerning Columbia River fishery rules as examples of the problems associated with the NOF.

Ocean sport coho salmon seasons will be constrained by low expected returns of wild coho to the Queets River in Washington and some Puget Sound waters, but with the big expected run of coho and an improved chinook return to the Columbia River, anglers will still get a fairly robust ocean salmon season this summer.

While a final decision has not yet been made, the PFMC has approved three options for ocean salmon seasons on the Washington coast.

• Option 1: Includes quotas of 28,000 Chinook and 75,200 marked coho. This option includes early-season Chinook fisheries in June in all areas, followed by Chinook and marked coho fisheries through the rest of the summer.

• Option 2: Includes quotas of 25,000 Chinook and 95,600 marked coho. In this option, a higher portion of the coho quota would be assigned to the Columbia River Areas, including Marine Area 1, Ilwaco, and Marine Area 2, Westport.

• Option 3: Close all ocean areas to any salmon fishing.

Summer runs a mixed bag

Anglers will get a chance to fish on a return of 77,600 summer chinook adults to the Columbia this year, after not having a season last year. However, the seasons have yet to be finalized.

Since the two states do not have concurrent commercial fisheries rules right now, there will be no commercial season for summer chinook this year.

“Washington allows the use of gill nets, but Oregon does not,” said Ryan Lothrop, the Columbia River fishery manager for the WDFW. “Because of this non-concurrency we can’t plan a commercial fishery.”

Only 101,400 summer steelhead are projected to return to the Columbia in 2021, including only 1,000 endangered wild B-run fish headed back to the Snake and Clearwater Rivers in Idaho.

This year managers will again use rolling block closures on the Columbia, and steelhead sanctuaries at the mouths of cold-water tributaries, to protect the endangered stocks.

“I think we are seeing the genetically unique steelhead populations struggling,” Lothrop said. “With these small populations, when you have bad ocean conditions, and mix in with that a flood, wildfires, and a hot summer, it hits them hard.”

In addition to steelhead sanctuaries enacted in past years, such as on Drano Lake, lower river tributaries such as the Cowlitz, Kalama, and Lewis rivers will see steelhead closures in their lowest river miles to protect “dippers.” These are Idaho-bound steelhead that dip into the lower sections of cold-water tributaries to escape the high temps of the Columbia briefly, before setting back out on their migration.

No steelhead fishing is allowed during the sanctuary closures.

The 2021 sockeye forecast is 155,600 adult fish and is 69 percent of the 10-year average return. However, anglers will get to keep a single sockeye as part of their adult salmon daily limit.

Fall Chinook numbers are also up, with over 580,000 adults expected to return to the Columbia River. That’s better than last year, but still below the 10-year average. The early and late coho Columbia River returns are expected to be more than 1 million adults.

Once again, non-concurrency between the states has caused issues. Washington allocates 70 percent of the salmon catch to the sport fishery, and 30 percent to the commercial fishery, but the Oregon split is 80/20. The states will allocate 70 percent to the sport fishery, 20 percent to the commercial fishery, and leave 10 percent unallocated.

It does look like anglers will get a full Buoy 10 season this year, and the coho limit is set to rise to three hatchery adults once most of the Chinook have passed through the fishery. The increased limit should kick in by early September.

Most Washington tributaries will also see an increase in coho limits, with the Kalama, Cowlitz, North Fork Lewis, and Washougal rivers set to see a three-hatchery adult coho daily limit.

As soon as the seasons are finalized next week, the WDFW will send out news releases outlining the ocean and in-river salmon seasons in detail. Anglers who do not receive email notices can find the news releases at https://wdfw.wa.gov/news

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Guided trips: Bill Monroe Jr., 503-702-4028, https://billmonroeoutdoors.com/

Terry Otto offers a weekly southwest Washington fishing report and forecast as part of Bob Rees’ the Guides Forecast at: https://www.theguidesforecast.com/

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