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News / Sports / Outdoors

Lower spring Chinook limits on Columbia River tributaries upset anglers

State cuts how many spring Chinook can be taken from tributaries

By Terry Otto, Columbian freelance outdoors writer
Published: March 9, 2024, 3:16pm
2 Photos
Fishing guide Chris Turvey with a spring Chinook taken in Drano Lake last year.
Fishing guide Chris Turvey with a spring Chinook taken in Drano Lake last year. With the Cowlitz harvest severely limited, many Cowlitz anglers may turn to other rivers, exacerbating crowding on those systems. Photo Gallery

The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife has reduced the daily limits for 2024 spring Chinook fisheries in some Region 5 Columbia River tributaries and many anglers are not happy.

Daily limits have been lowered from two hatchery ad-clipped adult Chinook per day to only one on four systems, including the Kalama River, Drano Lake, the Wind River, and the Cowlitz River.

The Lewis River has a one-Chinook limit as part of the permanent rules, so a reduction was not needed in that river.

The action has not been well-received by many local anglers, and they have expressed their displeasure online, as well as in complaints to the department.

In particular, anglers are upset about restrictions on the Cowlitz River, which include a restriction against keeping any spring Chinook with just an adipose clip. The new regulations make clear that only spring Chinook adults with an adipose and a ventral fin clip may be kept.

Josua Holowatz, a biologist with the WDFW in Region 5, said the cutbacks on limits were necessary to make sure the state hatcheries on these systems receive enough adult Chinook salmon for egg-take to maintain fisheries in future years.

“That’s the reason those Cowlitz origin fish, which are the ones used in the hatchery program, were not adipose clipped, so they wouldn’t be harvested,” said Holowatz.

He mentioned that the five-year-old component of the Chinook run is the only segment to be returning this year with an adipose clip, but those fish must be protected from harvest.

“We want those fish in the hatchery because those are really important for that life history,” said Holowatz. “We need that genetic component, and those fish are a little bit bigger. The bigger the fish, the more eggs they will have.”

There may also be a few jack salmon that will be marked with only an adipose fin clip. Jack salmon are precocious males that return after only one year in the salt water.

He explained that when this year’s returning fish were spawned back in 2020, the runs had been severely impacted by poor ocean conditions, and very few spring Chinook were returning.

“As of June 7 of that year only 186 adult spring Chinook had returned to the hatchery,” said Holowatz.

The eventual return was much higher, about 800, but still well below the 1300 adults needed to produce the target releases. To boost production, brood adults were brought in from the Kalama River, and those were spawned to make up the shortfall.

Also, problems at the hatchery caused excess mortality, exacerbating the already short numbers. Only a little over 911,000 spring Chinook smolts were released in 2022, well below the target of 1,700,000 smolts. About 300,000 of those were Kalama-origin fish.

It is those fish alone that anglers can harvest this year. WDFW estimates place the number of harvestable hatchery adults from this planting at about 600.

Holowatz further explained that if these systems are to have good spring Chinook fisheries in four years, they need to get their full adult return this year so the hatcheries can continue these programs in full. That is especially true in the Cowlitz River.

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“Today, we need to be really strict on how we run this fishery this year,” continued Holowatz.

He said fisheries managers also did not want to constrain the main stem Columbia salmon fisheries, such as back in 2020, when the paltry forecast for the returns forced managers to close the Columbia below the mouth of the Cowlitz, so the returning hatchery adults needed for egg-take were not over-harvested in the main stem.

Fishing guide Dave Mallahan lives and guides on the Cowlitz, but because of the issues with the returns, he has not guided for springers on the tributary for some time.

“I might have made a couple trips on the Cowlitz, but I have switched to guiding on Drano Lake for springers for a few years now,” he said. “A few of those years it wasn’t even open for spring Chinook.”

Given the state of the return, Mallahan questions the need for any fishery on the Cowlitz this year.

“They are closing it without closing it,” said Mallahan. “If you need the fish that bad, why have it open at all? Either open it for hatchery fish, or close it.”

He also believes that the returning fish that can not be kept will be stressed by being caught and handled, possibly multiple times before they reach the hatchery.

He knows that many fishers will turn to other systems with better options this year, which could exacerbate crowding on those rivers.

WDFW maintains that they want to provide as many opportunities for anglers to harvest fish as they can.

Three other systems have had their daily limit of two hatchery adult spring Chinook reduced to one.

For instance, in the Wind River the daily limit will be six, with a two-adult limit, but only one can be a hatchery adipose fin-clipped Chinook. The river is expected to see a return of 4,156 adults. Anglers must release all salmon other than hatchery Chinook and hatchery coho. All wild steelhead must be released.

Likewise, Drano Lake has had its daily limit reduced to one adult Chinook as part of a two-adult limit. The system is expected to see a return of 5,273 adult Chinook.

In the Kalama River the news is the same, with only one hatchery adult Chinook allowed as part of a two-adult limit.

Anglers are reminded that the state may alter these rules and limits as needed if the returns come in less than expected. Always check the regulations and emergency rules section of the WDFW website before fishing.

WDFW emergency rules: https://wdfw.wa.gov/about/regulations/rule-changes

Columbian freelance outdoors writer