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News / Sports / Outdoors

Shorter Spring Chinook season off and running

Projected runs of prized fish in Columbia River small than past years

By Terry Otto, Columbian freelance outdoors writer
Published: February 24, 2024, 6:03am
3 Photos
Mindi Eleazer, the wife of fishing guide Matt Eleazer, with a fine spring Chinook salmon she took from the Columbia River.
Mindi Eleazer, the wife of fishing guide Matt Eleazer, with a fine spring Chinook salmon she took from the Columbia River. (Photo courtesy of East Fork Outfitters) Photo Gallery

Oregon and Washington state fisheries managers have finalized and announced the recreational spring Chinook salmon season on the Columbia River for 2024. Anglers will get to fish the big river for these highly prized fish through April 5.

The projected Columbia River return is expected to come in at 121,000 adults. That is below last year’s actual return of 141,000, and well below the 10-year average of 152,000.

“Although this run is smaller than the last few year’s returns, we are still able to provide some quality fishing opportunities,” said Ryan Lothrop, Columbia River fisheries manager with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife in a news release. “We have an obligation to ensure the most limiting run, Snake River natural-origin spring Chinook listed under the Endangered Species Act, has adequate protection so future opportunities can still be possible.”

Also, preseason forecasts for the Lewis, Cowlitz and Kalama rivers are strong enough that anglers will see retention allowed on all three systems this spring.

Anglers hopeful of an extension of the Columbia season, should the return best projections, will probably be disappointed. Lothrop suggests a reopening is unlikely.

“It would be the traditional mid-May when the compact would get together for the first update,” he said.

“We’ve got the same constraints this year as last year,” said Lothrop, “and we have a small run to work with.”

The season is open now from the Interstate 5 Bridge to the mouth under permanent regulations. Starting March 1, the river will be open to from Beacon Rock to the mouth for boat anglers, and up to the deadline at Bonneville Dam for hand-casted bank angling. It will close on April 6.

The daily limit is two hatchery fin-clipped Chinook or steelhead, only one of which may be a Chinook.

Last year’s fishery was extended early, but only because conditions in the Columbia were terrible, and that was reflected in dismal catch rates. Anglers were hampered by high, dirty water, and the river was jam-packed with smelt, which kills the bite.

Bob Rees is a fishing guide and he sits on the Columbia River Recreational Advisory Group. He said that when the river is full of smelt, the Chinook have little incentive to take anglers’ baits.

“The river was so packed full of smelt, that the fish had no desire to take bait,” said Rees. “Their stomachs were filled with smelt.”

Right now, the lower Columbia is again full of smelt, sometimes called eulachon. The smallish, oily fish returns in February and March. A smelt dip was recently held on the Cowlitz River, and dippers pulled some 54,000 pounds of smelt out during that dip. The run of smelt is strong enough that managers say there may be a second dip held.

Iconic Northwest angler Buzz Ramsey of Klickitat said he is looking forward to this year’s spring run, even if it may not be that great.

“I’m looking forward to a good season on the Columbia and the Willamette,” Ramsey said. “We’re seeing a lot better steelhead fishing this year. Maybe that will translate into a better Chinook run than we are expecting.”

Ramsey also pointed to a smaller snowpack in Idaho than last year, and he is hoping that will mean lower flows, and better fishing conditions for this year.

Most guides and experienced anglers will probably wait until the last week or two of the season to start fishing. They all agree that early March can be a tough bite.

Matt Eleazer of East Fork Outfitters reports that he likes to fish the upper reaches of the lower Columbia.

“I mostly fish the upper section, just below Bonneville,” said Eleazer, “although it’s really frustrating, because the fish usually don’t show up there until the first or second week of April.”

He also said the sea lion situation up there just keeps getting worse.

“It’s discouraging because of all the sea lions. They seem to linger around whenever we are fishing there and it makes it very tough.”

“Still, we always seem to catch fish,” he added.

He is hoping for better fishing conditions, citing the terrible high water he fought all last year. He was often forced to anchor to fish with stationary baits, even though he prefers to troll herring behind triangle flashers right on the bottom.

Though he prefers the Bonneville reach, Eleazer said he will start the season below the Willamette to get in on the early returning fish that are headed to that Oregon tributary.

Rees said he will also start low, and may stay down there if conditions allow. He really enjoys fishing the Clifton Channel and Tenasillahe Island area.

“The year before last it was really good,” said Rees. “But last year smelt were an issue down there. If we have the same smelt issue again, we might rethink it.”

“There is a real advantage to fishing the lower river. You get a chance at Willamette springers before they turn into the Multnomah Channel.”

Rees also said it is a beautiful area, and it gets a bit less pressure than the reaches near Portland.

Above Bonneville Dam the fishery will open from April 1 to May 2, and anglers may only fish from shore below the Tower Island power lines (approximately six miles below The Dalles Dam) with boat angling open above the power lines.

The daily limit is two hatchery fin-clipped Chinook or steelhead, only one of which may be a Chinook. Anglers are reminded that barbless hooks are required for all salmon and steelhead fishing in the Columbia River.

Stay informed on what is happening in Clark County, WA and beyond for only

Anglers should always review the Washington Sport Fishing Rules pamphlet prior to fishing, as well as the emergency rule changes before heading out. Regulations are often modified in-season as returns materialize.

Guided Trips

Bob Rees, 503-812-9036, https://www.theguidesforecast.com/bob-rees-fishing-guide-service/

Rees also publishes The Guides Forecast, offering weekly fishing reports for Oregon and southwest Washington.

Matt Eleazer of East Fork Outfitters, 360-687-3474, https://www.columbiasalmonguide.com/

Columbian freelance outdoors writer