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Feb. 27, 2021

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Coho run projections excite Columbia River anglers

Numbers won’t be as big in river as in ocean

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Karen Trandum of Sandy, Ore., fights an ocean coho during one of the last really good years. Returns have suffered recently, but this year's ocean return of coho to the Oregon and Washington coast is expected to be an astounding 1.7 million adults.
Karen Trandum of Sandy, Ore., fights an ocean coho during one of the last really good years. Returns have suffered recently, but this year's ocean return of coho to the Oregon and Washington coast is expected to be an astounding 1.7 million adults. (Terry Otto/for The Columbian) Photo Gallery

There’s a big number being floated around on websites and among local fishermen’s circles, and that number is 1.7 million. That figure is the ocean abundance projection for this year’s adult coho salmon return to the Washington-Oregon coast in 2021. That big number is causing excitement, but it is deceiving in some ways.

John North, the Columbia River fisheries manager for the ODFW, recently expressed concern that many in the angler community may be mistaking that huge number for the Columbia River return.

“What this is pointing to is ocean abundance,” said North. “I would call it a predicted abundance prior to harvest in the ocean, but people often confuse it as a Columbia River mouth forecast.”

He is quick to point out that the river mouth forecast will be a substantial number, just not 1.7 million.

“Ocean harvest can be substantial, but either way it’s going to relate to a rather large forecast to the mouth of the Columbia, but people tend to tend to forget that is a starting point.”

Before the states can figure out how many coho are going to make it back to the river, managers will have to work in the amount of harvest allowed on the fish in the ocean. That won’t be hammered out until the North of Falcon Process is complete in April. That process decides how many fish the tribes, commercial fishermen and sport anglers can harvest.

And, all those stakeholders will want their cut of this big pie.

“As for the ocean harvest, they will all try to maximize that as much as they can,” said Buzz Ramsey, the iconic Northwest angler and founding member of the Northwest Sportfishing Industry Association (NSIA). “We won’t know what that is until the Pacific Fisheries Management Council (PFMC) does their thing.”

“After North of Falcon process, we’ll figure out exactly what the ocean fisheries are expected to remove, then break it out by stock, and then (we’ll) be able to figure out an actual Columbia River forecast,” said North.

“It will be large, but it might not look quite the same as that number.”

North also wants to make note that these are projections only, and even after figuring out ocean harvest, there will be other factors involved that may affect the actual number of returning fish. For instance, the projections in 2019 for coho ocean abundance were about 1 million, but after ocean harvest only 600,000 were predicted to make it to the river mouth. The actual return was much smaller, slightly over a third of the river projection.

Ocean conditions are certainly better than they were just a few years ago, but still can’t be categorized as “good”. That means some of those fish may not survive to return.

Another factor is that many of these fish, perhaps as many as 100,000, will be returning to coastal rivers, not the Columbia.

The high projection is driven by last fall’s jack counts, which are returns of precocious males that return a year early. That gives managers an indicator as to how many juvenile coho were able to survive.

“It was a tremendous number of jacks,” said North.

The projection does bode well for coastal anglers and charter boats. The ocean season looks bright if all the fish show.

The mark rate of the coho is expected to be about 80% according to official estimates. Mark rate refers to the number of fish that are of hatchery origin, and are adipose-fin clipped. Those fish can be kept, but unmarked wild coho can’t be retained and must be released.

Ramsey isn’t sure about that mark rate. He fished the river last year for coho and had a difficult time finding any that he could keep.

“I did not get a single keeper coho last year at Buoy Ten,” he said. “It was dismal.”

The main takeaway from this is that anglers are possibly looking at a really good fall run of coho. But, with the ocean projection bouncing around, many anglers may think it’s going to be even better than it will be. Still, after so many poor years, this is news worth celebrating. That is, if the fish actually show.

Spring Chinook numbers will allow lower Columbia fishery

Another piece of good news for anglers is that the spring Chinook projections, which are not high, will still be good enough to allow anglers a chance to fish for springers in the lower Columbia, after being locked out for the last two years.

“The Cowlitz spring Chinook return will be strong enough to support an opening throughout the lower river,” said North. “We will have a surplus if don’t have a fishery in the Cowlitz itself.”

For the last two years returns to the Cowlitz River were too low to allow fishing on those stocks in the lower Columbia. But, other than a possible fishing closure bubble at the mouth of the Cowlitz, as well as the closure of the Cowlitz itself, the lower Columbia will stay open.

That is especially good news for bank anglers that fish off the lower river beaches. While boat anglers had the option of hauling their boats upriver to fish, there simply isn’t enough beach access in the upper sections of the Columbia to accommodate all the lower river bank anglers. Those anglers were pretty much shut out of the action for the last two years.

Southwest Washington Fishing Report: Terry Otto’s fishing update and forecast can be found as part of Bob Rees’ “The Guides Forecast” at: https://www.theguidesforecast.com/

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