I have to admit I was thinking of delaying this update in hopes that the outlook would improve. But, I made a promise, and I’m sticking to it, so here's what we're dealing with for the Chinook run.
At this point, I have been focusing on two things to evaluate the strength (or weakness) of this year’s run. One is fish passage over Bonneville Dam, and the other is the test fishery that NOAA fisheries conducts in the lower Columbia River.
Looking at this data, I’m not going to sugar coat it. The salmon counts over Bonneville Dam stink. In fact, if you look through all the years that we have counted Chinook Salmon at Bonneville Dam (staring in 1939), this is the lowest count we have ever seen for this time of year (see graph below). In other words, the worst ever.
That tells us that this run is extremely late, weak, or both. If you are wondering if we have ever seen a run start real slow and end up good, the answer is yes. In fact, the second lowest count we have seen for this date was in 2006, and in that year, the spring portion of the Chinook run (through May 31) ended up above average (38th best out of 79 years). A lot of you probably remember 2011, because fishing was fairly good that year (13th best out of 79 years), and it had a slow star as well (11th worst for this time of year). So, just because counts are at an all-time low doesn’t mean we won’t have fisheries.
There is evidence that this run is late. The best information to support this is the data collected by NOAA Fisheries in their test fishery (drifting tangle nets) in the lower Columbia River (see Table below). This data shows capture of Chinook salmon started real slow and in the last couple weeks have picked up. The fish sampled in this test fishery typically show up at Bonneville Dam one to three weeks later, which means more are on their way. These test net numbers are actually similar to last year, which was the latest spring Chinook run we have seen in recent memory.
Unfortunately, what I don’t know is how many fish will ultimately show up to Idaho. Typically, by this time of the year 20-25 percent of the Chinook bound for Idaho would have passed over Bonneville Dam.
Last year, at this time, the run over Bonneville Dam just barely started. In fact we didn’t see our first PIT tagged fish bound for Rapid River hatchery show up until May 7 last year. At this point, we are going to have to be patient. One thing is for sure, you can count on me to keep you updated.
The spring Chinook Salmon season begins this Saturday in the Clearwater Region (Clearwater, Rapid River, and Hells Canyon runs). Unfortunately, only 16 Chinook have passed over Lower Granite Dam, so I don’t think there will be a lot of catching going on. I do recall a few years back when we had fewer than 50 fish pass over Lower Granite Dam, and we documented an angler catching one. So, it is possible. One thing is for certain, you can catch one if you don’t try.
Some anglers have been asking whether we are going to change the fishing rules given the status of the run. At this point, we don’t have any intentions of changing the rules until we learn more. We suspect just the very beginning of this run is starting to pass over Bonneville Dam, which gives us time.
Look for my next update later next week. - Joe DuPont, Clearwater Region Fisheries Manager