Although short of forecasts, salmon run still breaks records

Chinook salmon congregate in the pristine water and shallow gravel beds of Eagle Creek – an ideal spawning ground for these iconic fish

Photo by Adam Lapierre
Chinook salmon congregate in the pristine water and shallow gravel beds of Eagle Creek – an ideal spawning ground for these iconic fish

Although about 12,000 stragglers made their way through Bonneville Dam in the last week, the 2014 fall Chinook salmon run on the Columbia River is quickly tapering to an end. All told, some 2.5 million salmon and steelhead will have been counted at the Bonneville fish ladder this year (between Jan. 1 and the end of fall) as they continue their long journey from open ocean to their home streams anywhere from Eagle Creek just above the dam to the upper reaches of the Columbia and Snake River systems.

As of Friday morning, 979,813 fall chinook adults and jacks had been counted at Bonneville, according to the Columbia River Basin Fisheries Agencies and Tribes Fish Passage Center. That figure is about half a million fish short of the behemoth predictions announced enthusiastically this spring by biologists, but more than double the 10-year average, and although the numbers didn’t quite live up to the hype, they still beat three historic records for the dam that date back more than 75 years.

One new record is the total count of salmon and steelhead for the year. The 2.5 million figure (give or take a few thousand by the end of the year) includes spring, summer and fall run chinook, coho and sockeye salmon and steelhead and is the highest combined total of those species ever recorded at the dam. The second record, which baffled even the most seasoned biologist and fishermen, was set on Sept. 8, when a staggering 67,527 chinook passed through the fish ladders – the highest one-day total for fall chinook ever recorded at the dam. A third record, set this summer, was the Columbia Sockeye run, which saw a return of 614,179, almost 100,000 more than the previous record from 2012.

Forecasts for the fall chinook run were predicted at about a million and a half which, if reached, would have bettered last year’s record-setting return of 1,044,023. This year’s run looks like it will fall short of that by about 50,000. Also forecasted as a potentially record-setting was the fall run of coho, which have returned to the tune of more than a quarter million this season – just shy of the all-time record of 266,314 counted in 2001.

While cheerful forecasts and solid numbers to back them were enough to generate considerable excitement by fishermen across the northwest, action on the water didn’t always meet expectations. Locally, fishing in the Bonneville Pool (between Bonneville and The Dalles dams) was much more challenging than what the numbers might suggest, says longtime northwest outdoorsman and professional fisherman Buzz Ramsey.

“When you have a big run it gets people excited,” Ramsey said Thursday. “But it’s still fishing. If it were a guarantee it would be called ‘catching.’ When you get out on the water, even if the numbers are there, conditions mean a lot.”

A long, hot and dry summer across the Columbia basin meant unusually high water temperatures this season, which, Ramsey explains, has a major impact on fish headed upstream and thus the fishermen wanting them to bite. “The river is always warm that time of year, but this year it was especially warm. Adding to it, the dams mix the water like a milkshake, so the water is pretty warm top to bottom. In our area, the best fishing is concentrated around the cool water tributaries that run into the Columbia, but once they’ve been exposed to the warm water, the bite tends to be a lot slower.”

Data from the Fish Passage Center show water temperatures at Bonneville hovered around 73 degrees for most of August, were in the upper 60s for all of September and only dipped below 65 degrees this week.

Hood River-based fishing guide Rusty Hicks echoed Ramsey’s sentiment on water temperatures effecting what fishermen call “the bite.”

“It has been what you could call a tough year,” said Hicks, who owns and operates Rusty’s Guide Service. “We’ve caught fish every trip, but it has definitely been hard work. There were a lot of fish down there, they just weren’t biting. I think we got spoiled by last year, with how many fish there were and how active they were. We had to work a lot harder for every fish this year.”

Although fishing wasn’t as hot as he would have liked, Hicks said this year was his busiest ever as a guide — he fished with clients 43 days straight ending this weekend — and the weather was nothing short of phenomenal.

n Fisheries managers are crediting both natural and human factors in the solid returns of late. High runoff and river levels a few years ago had a dramatic impact on the survival rate of young salmon and steelhead headed out to the ocean in the spring, and for those that made it to salt water, they were met by what scientists say were favorable ocean conditions, which further supported high survival rates.

“The salmon are showing us that when the region works together and conditions cooperate, we have all the right ingredients for them to flourish,” said Barry Thom, of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Those tied to the enormous human effort and the many millions of dollars of annual investment in helping restore salmon runs also quick to point out the fruits of their labors.

“These returns are the result of everyone’s commitment to rebuild stronger salmon populations and provide a glimpse into what the region can accomplish when we work together,” Said Paul Limlley, Executive Director of the Columbia River Inter-tribal Fish Commission. “They should also remind us of the work that remains, and give us renewed hope and purpose to fight for those populations that continue to struggle.”

“These impressive runs give us hope that one of our primary efforts … will be successful over the long term,” said Bill Bradbury, Chair of the Northwest Power and Conservation Council and former Oregon Sec. of State. “We are working to connect areas of good habitat, restore ecosystems, remove fish-passage barriers, improve water quality and temperature, and in general provide a welcoming place for the salmon to come home to.”

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