Fall salmon fishing in the lower Columbia River was such a disaster — with a month-long closure during the heart of the season in September despite plenty of chinook — that Washington officials already are working to avoid a repeat of the fiasco in 2023.
To oversimplify and recount briefly, the catch of lower Columbia tule fall chinook in late August in the popular Buoy 10 fishery at the mouth of the river exceeded expectations by 219 percent. Washington and Oregon were forced to close all salmon and steelhead fishing beginning Sept. 2 from Buoy 10 to Bonneville Dam to avoid exceeding catch limitations.
Chinook anglers finally got a remnant of a fishery beginning Sept. 15, but only upstream of Reed Island, east of Washougal.
Fishing in the popular Cathlamet-to-Camas stretch of the lower Columbia did not reopen for chinook until Oct. 1. And then, due to additional information, chinook fishing closed again for good beginning Oct. 8.
“There’s a strong interest…that this is something we should try to think about not doing again next year if we have a choice,’’ said Don McIsaac of Hockinson, an outgoing member of the Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission, in a bit of an understatement.
But what can be done?
More hatchery-only chinook fishing
Once upon a time chinook fishing at Buoy 10 started Aug. 1 with a goal of staying open through Labor Day.
Increasingly, that did not work and there were early closures.
To avoid early closures, Washington and Oregon shifted to “mark-selective fisheries,’’ jargon for keeping only fin-clipped (i.e., marked, hatchery) chinook.
This past fall, Buoy 10 was hatchery-only for chinook Aug. 1-24, with the plan being to allow retention of any chinook beginning Aug. 25 and running through Labor Day.
But the catch of lower Columbia tule chinook, a weak stock needing protection, came so quickly that the any-chinook season was closed effective Aug. 31 due to the handle being so much higher than expected.
Cameron Black of Woodland, representing the Washington State Guides Association, suggested future Buoy 10 seasons open with a hatchery-only chinook rule and continue until state biologists determine there are enough fish available to go to any-chinook without exceeding the allocation.
Robert Moxley, a long-time Columbia sport-fishing activist from Oregon, said Buoy 10 needs to be hatchery-only for chinook in August, then perhaps shift to any-chinook in September.
Reduce guide fishing at Buoy 10
Jim Wells of Astoria, Ore., a commercial fisherman, said guides have too much impact at Buoy 10.
Oregon’s data shows that in 2012 guides produced 10 percent of the Buoy 10 trips and caught 12 percent of the fish. By 2021, guides were almost 30 percent of the trips and more than 40 percent of the salmon caught.
If coho are removed from the catch total, the guide fishery catches about 50 percent of the chinook, Wells said.
“To me, that’s pretty unreasonable,’’ he added.
“Other people have pointed out the accolades of the guide fishery, how good it is for getting people out on the water,’’ Wells said. “But it’s also displacing a lot of mom-and-pop fishers.’’
Eliminating guided fishing for two days a week worked on Alaska’s Kenai River, Wells said.
McIsaac, whose term on the Fish and Wildlife Commission ends Dec. 31, said he’d like to see limiting guides to fewer than seven days a week — perhaps fishing only every other day — be put into the computer catch models next spring and see if that would extend the Buoy 10 season.
“The guide fishery has a lot of positives,’’ McIsaac said. “But it is a factor in the seasons shrinking over the years.’’
However, Black, owner of Gone Catchin Guide Service, said guides are not going to leave the Buoy 10 area if there is a two-day-a-week closure.
“A lot of these guides are recreational fishermen as well,’’ Black said. “The guides are still going to fish. I would love a couple of days a week to take out my family and friends.’’
Randy Woolsey of Oregon, a former tackle manufacturers’ representative, defended the guides and urged there not be wholesale regulation changes based on the problems of a single year.
“These guides have been instrumental in introducing opportunity to new recreational anglers.’’ Woolsey said. “It’s an integral part of growing our business.’’
Jim Coleman, a former Columbia River commercial advisory committee member, said there are 500 or more guides fishing at Buoy 10, most of them with six customers in their boat.
“I see the guides, in my opinion, overfishing it,’’ he said. “They are pretty proficient in their ability to catch fish.’’
New season structure possible?
A complaint by everyone is the unreliability of chinook forecasts, chinook entry timing into the Columbia and the variability of catch rates. The result is a fishing closure on very short notice.
McIsaac suggested adopting a fishing season where it is all-but-certain there will be no early closure.
“Some portion of the fishery that has a very high likelihood of not being closed should be part of it,’’ he said. “Then, a notice to everybody that outside of this block — this stability piece — is the uncertainty of in-season management. You might not want to book your hotels or clients with anything that sounds like absolute certainty.’’
Decades ago, salmon fishing at Buoy 10 did not open until Aug. 16.
“That would be another way to dampen the catch to not open until Aug. 16,’’ McIsaac said.
Decisions to be made in April
Columbia River salmon fisheries are determined after a lengthy February-through-April process. That process involves the Pacific Salmon Commission (U.S and Canada), the Pacific Fishery Management Council (Washington, Oregon, Idaho, tribal fishermen, federal fishery agencies and others) and then Columbia River-specific agreements between treaty and non-Indian fishing interests plus sportsmen and commercial fishermen.
Mid-April is late to try to book lodging at the coast.
“This is, arguably, the most complicated fishery in the world,’’ said Larry Phillips, Pacific fisheries policy director of the American Sportfishing Association.