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Salmon anglers netting better returns of sockeye and chinook

By Rich Landers For The Spokesman-Review

While far short of record return years, some Columbia River salmon runs are tweaking memories of the good ol’ days.

Anglers in the Tri-Cities area set a harvest record for sockeye this month as the fish passed through en route to spawning areas in British Columbia. Upper Columbia anglers have picked up the action and are having a ball catching the delicious red-meated fish.

Summer chinook also have exceeded expectations of fish managers and have been providing incentive fishing. More encouragement is coming from the promising prospects for the fall chinook headed to the Hanford Reach of the Columbia in August and September, with a six-fish limit, said Paul Hoffarth, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife fisheries biologist.

Comparing this year’s sockeye catch in the Tri-Cities area with past fisheries is eye-opening. Anglers in that section of the river harvested roughly 3,500 sockeye in 2014 during the record run of 614,000 fish under a daily catch limit of four sockeye. This year, with a daily limit of two, anglers have taken more than 6,200 sockeye in the Tri-Cities area from the 341,000 fish that have moved over Bonneville Dam from the Pacific Ocean.

“Twice the harvest with about half the fish,” Hoffarth said, noting the positive side of this year’s run. “More anglers are dialed in and learning the techniques.”

Some anglers say the increased harvest was largely due to more angler participation and ideal conditions. With water temperatures running 58-60 degrees in unusually steady flows out of Priest Rapids Dam, the Columbia through the Tri-Cities has been relatively weed-free and fishable nearly the entire season, Tri-Cities angler Jeff Holmes said.

“We had perfect water temperature and perfect flows and a big run that came over a sustained period of time,” Holmes said.

The normal big turnout of anglers seems to have been boosted higher because of pent-up demand for getting out during the pandemic and the recent dearth of good salmon and steelhead fishing opportunities, he said.

Now, as the summer salmon sport fishery in the Hanford Reach will close Friday night, the sockeye fishery has moved upstream, spreading the joy all the way to the traditional hotspots in the Brewster Pool above Wells Dam.

“It’s been fantastic and I don’t see it slowing down,” said fishing guide Kyle Jones, who’s been targeting the upper Columbia since July 7. “Both sockeye and summer chinook have been good. I’ve been booked.”

One of the common tactics he uses involves trolling with a dodger and short leader to a Mack’s smile blade tipped with pink-dyed shrimp.

Jerrod Gibbons of Okanogan Valley Guide Service likes to experiment with various shrimp baits, lures, hoochies and scents on downriggers trolled at about 1.2 mph as the fish can change their depth and preference for lures from day to day, he said.

“Good sockeye fishing should continue as long as the weather stays warm and the thermal barrier remains intact in the Okanogan River to keep the fish from running upstream to their spawning areas,” Jones said.

Summer chinook should provide good fishing in the upper Columbia through August, he added.

With more fish in the river, the COVID-19 situation is having little effect on his salmon guiding business.

“We’ve been really busy,” Jones said. “Sports activities and games have been canceled, and a lot of people, especially families, are turning to fishing. So if you come to the river, expect it to be busy. Come with a great attitude and you’ll be rewarded.”

With five times more sockeye moving up the Columbia than last year’s dismal run of 63,000 fish, anglers and fish managers are crossing their fingers that this season might begin some years of better river flows and ocean conditions.

“The sockeye and summer chinook runs both exceeded our expectations this year, and the forecast for fall chinook to the Columbia River is better than last year, too,” Hoffarth said.

“It’s still pretty low – around 233,000 fall chinook headed to the Columbia and more than 90,000 adult chinook returning to the Hanford Reach. That’s enough for good fishing (for a season that will open Aug. 16). I’m looking at starting with the usual daily limit below Priest Rapids Dam of six salmon, two of which can be adults.”

Most areas of the lower and mid-Columbia will have a daily limit of one fall chinook, he said.

“The last couple of years have been nightmares for fish managers as the wheels came off the fisheries,” Hoffarth said. “We had to write and rewrite emergency closures as the fisheries came in lower than expected. We’d much rather be extending seasons, as we were able to do this year.”

Toby Wyatt of Reel Time Fishing based in Clarkston said he’s been focused on sturgeon, bass and walleye closer to home this spring and summer. “But I wish I would have been at the Upper Columbia and Brewster Pool,” he said. “They’ve had some great fishing.”

Wyatt will haul his boat to the lower Columbia’s Buoy 10 salmon fishery in August before moving upriver starting in mid-September to fish for king salmon in the Hanford Reach. “You can get some good fishing there earlier, but it’s a little more hit or miss,” he said.

“The Hanford Reach is decent fishing even when the runs aren’t that big.”

Guides say many of their clients have responded to the recent lean years of salmon and steelhead runs by adjusting their attitudes.

“They’re getting used to lower bag limits because they still want to get out on the water,” Wyatt said. “This year most of the predictions are a little better, and that’s helped boost interest.”

Noting that spring rains helped keep rivers at decent flows for fish outmigrations to the ocean, he’s optimistic that they might also find improved conditions in the ocean where the juvenile fish mature before returning to their natal streams.

“Maybe this year is the beginning of an uptrend in our salmon and steelhead fisheries,” he said.

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