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Many happy returns for Columbia River salmon

Spring Chinook numbers could be best in years

By TERRY OTTO, for The Columbian
Published: January 4, 2023, 6:04pm
4 Photos
Outdoor writer Bill Herzog (left) and Buzz Ramsey pose with a 2022 Columbia River spring Chinook. The states have released projections for the 2023 return of Spring Chinook, and they offer anglers optimism for the coming year.
Outdoor writer Bill Herzog (left) and Buzz Ramsey pose with a 2022 Columbia River spring Chinook. The states have released projections for the 2023 return of Spring Chinook, and they offer anglers optimism for the coming year. (Photo courtesy of Buzz Ramsey) Photo Gallery

Oregon and Washington have started publishing their forecasts for 2023 Columbia River salmon runs, and with a few exceptions, most of the news is good.

The numbers of spring Chinook expected back to the Columbia River and its tributaries are the best in years, and may result in more opportunity for southwest Washington anglers.

The initial analysis of fall salmon numbers also point to strong returns, and there are expected increases in the projections for summer Chinook, too.

There are some runs that may constrain the state’s ability to allow long seasons for spring Chinook, and some of the tributary returns are not where managers would like them, but the overall prognosis is that seasons may be comparable to 2022, and in some cases, they will be better.

“The fish coming back this year had some good ocean conditions to enjoy,” said Ryan Lothrop, the Columbia River Fishery Manager for the WDFW. “It may be the best year in a long while.”

The total Columbia River spring Chinook return is expected to come in at 315,000 fish, which is an increase over last year’s actual return of 284,000 adults.

The lower river return, below Bonneville Dam, looks to be about 117,000. The upriver run should be around 185,200.

Lothrop did point to some underperforming returns.

The numbers of wild spring/summer Chinook expected back to the Snake River is expected to be only around 13,000 adults. That is a significant drop from the actual 2022 return of over 23,000 fish.

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“The low returns (of spawning salmon) in 2018 and 2019 cost us on the wild run this year,” Lothrop said. “That’s probably the key one. It will hold us back a little bit to provide for conservation.

“It is still going to be a good opportunity compared to a few years ago.”

Some tributaries are expected to best last year’s numbers, but some systems may see less fish this year. Lothrop pointed toward two rivers with concerns: the Kalama River and the Wind River.

The Kalama is expected to see a return of 2,400 adult springers this year, which would be a drop from the actual return of over 3,000 last year.

There are concerns that the Wind River return, projected at 4,400, may fall short of the hatchery’s brood fish needs. Over 6,000 returned to the Wind River last year.

The Drano Lake run is also expected to fall short of last year’s return of 11,400, with only 8,000 projected for 2023.

Other tributary returns look pretty good.

The Cowlitz River is expecting a return of 9,000, which would be an increase over last year’s return of over 7,000. This is still far below historic returns to the Cowlitz.

The Lewis River saw a return of 6,875 in 2022, but in 2023 that number may be only about 4,700.

Still, Lothrop believes the spring seasons for these systems should be similar to last year.

Oregon’s Willamette River should see a nice increase. Last year 55,000 spring Chinook returned, and this year that number should rise to over 70,000.

Local angler Buzz Ramsey of Lyle is not just excited about the run sizes but also the prospects for big fish.

“We had a real good show last year of 4-year-old’s,” Ramsey said. “Almost 75% of the run last year were 4-year-old’s.”

That strong year class could lead to a lot of returning 5-year-old’s this year.

“Five-year-old spring Chinook can be from 14 pounds to 25 pounds, depending on ocean conditions,” he said. “There should be a real good percentage of 5-year-old Chinook, which represent those bigger fish. They are not all going to be big, but it may not be unusual to get a 20 pounder this year.”

“I’m excited about the increased numbers and the prospect of more big fish.”

Lothrop also reported that the summer Chinook projected return of 84,800 fish should also offer anglers a decent open season this summer.

Summer steelhead numbers have not been collated yet, but managers are worried about returns of two-salt steelhead, after the poor return of one-salt steelhead last year. That could result in a lower return of steelhead from that year class.

Sockeye are expected to return in smaller numbers after last year’s surprising return of over 600,000 adults. About 234,500 are expected in 2023.

While fall salmon returns have yet to be finalized, the states did publish some encouraging facts.

The fall Chinook run is expected to be similar to last year’s actual return, while jack returns from last year indicate that coho salmon may decline a little. Overall, the picture for fall fish is still strong.

Managers will produce the final fall projections in February, ahead of the North of Falcon Process.

Spring Chinook seasons should also be finalized in February.

Ramsey thinks there is a possibility of things turning out even better than expected.

“I think guys need to keep their ear to the ground this year,” he said. “It’s not going to be surprising if some of these forecasts are quite a bit under what will actually return.”

Most runs were under-projected last year, and with the good ocean conditions prevailing right now, Ramsey thinks the same thing could happen again.

“Guys could have a real opportunity to fill their freezer,” he added.