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News / Northwest

An Eastern Washington salmon fishing tradition is being stopped. State says it got too popular

By Annette Cary, Tri-City Herald
Published: June 18, 2024, 9:43am

Kennewick — A fall fishing tradition for Eastern Washington anglers will be ending as Washington state Department of Fish and Wildlife phases in enforcement of a camping ban.

During the fall chinook season, anglers gather at the Vernita Bridge access point to the Columbia River off Highway 243 near Highway 24. It’s upstream from the Tri-Cities on the Hanford Reach National Monument.

The site is for day use only, but since the late 1990s many anglers have set up camp there in the fall for days and sometime weeks at a time.

Some fishing guides even use the area to run their businesses during the season, according to Fish and Wildlife.

Dozens of camps at a time may be set up there during the fall.

“The level of use has not only become unsustainable but is causing damage to the natural landscape,” said Fish and Wildlife in a Monday announcement about the changes.

It is setting new rules for camping at Vernita for the 2024 and 2025 fall salmon seasons, and will phase out overnight camping in 2026.

“As the popularity of this area grew, the footprint of the area the public uses grew as well, getting bigger each year,” said Mike Livingston, the Fish and Wildlife South Central Region director.

The site lacks sewage and sanitation facilities and trash attracts insects and small animals, Fish and Wildlife said.

And as campers and boaters find space at the site, vehicles are using and destroying undisturbed habitat areas.

Many boat launches have been created over the years by people backing their vehicles over the natural landscape, according to Fish and Wildlife.

Vernita restrictions

Changes for 2024 and 2025 include:

— Designated areas will be established for overnight camping and day use with a combination of large rocks, eco-blocks and signs.

— Vehicles and trailers must remain in designated areas and during peak times some anglers may need to find other camping locations.

— Camping will be limited to 14 days per user.

— Except in the fall salmon seasons of Aug. 16 to Oct. 15, camping will be prohibited and vehicles will be limited to a smaller day use area.

Fish and Wildlife enforcement officers will be patrolling the area to make sure the new rules are followed.

Fish and Wildlife has managed the Vernita access to the Columbia River under a Department of Energy permit since 1971, but needs to come into compliance on the federally owned land as the site’s popularity has increased, the state agency said.

“WDFW understands the importance of this fishery both locally and regionally and is committed to providing public access in the area for anglers,” Livingston said.

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Staff are looking for an alternative camping site, the agency said. There will be a chance for public comment as an new site is identified and developed.

As camping is phased out at Vernita, the state plans to develop an improved boat launch, restroom and parking area.

There is some limited alternative camping options in the area already.

They include the Desert Aire RV park at Mattawa, 11 miles from Vernita; the Grant PUD Jackson Creek Fish Camp at Mattawa, seven miles from Vernita; and the Grant PUD Priest Rapids Recreation Area at Desert Aire, 11 miles from Vernita.

For boaters looking for alternative sites to launch, the middle of the Hanford Reach is accessible at the Ringold Fish Hatchery area and the upper Hanford Reach has the White Bluffs day use launch.