Anglers had to wait longer than they have in more than a decade, but they will again get the chance to hook a spring chinook salmon in the Snake River between Hells Canyon Dam and Dug Bar.
The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW), which typically has opened the spring chinook season in late April, announced Tuesday afternoon, May 17, that the season had opened that day.
(Spring chinook are so named because they typically move from the Pacific Ocean into the Columbia River starting in early spring to begin their upstream migration.)
The issue this year is that few spring chinook are expected to arrive in that reach of the Snake River, said Kyle Bratcher, fish biologist at ODFW’s Enterprise office.
But the story, and the problem that led to this situation, actually dates to 2018.
There was a meager return of spring chinook that year to the fish trap that Idaho Power Company operates just below Hells Canyon Dam, Bratcher said.
Workers harvest eggs and sperm from those fish, and the eggs are reared at Idaho Power’s Rapid River hatchery near Riggins, Idaho.
Two years later, when the juvenile fish are known as smolts, workers release them so they can migrate downriver to the Pacific.
Most of the hatchery salmon make the return journey two years later, as four-year-olds, Bratcher said. Each year’s run also includes fish three or five years old as well. The younger fish are known as “jacks.”
With so few adult spring chinook returning to the trap at Hells Canyon Dam in 2018, officials from the ODFW, the Idaho Fish and Game Department, in consultation with Native American tribes, decided not to release any spring chinook smolts below Hells Canyon Dam in 2020.
And that means that in 2022, the year when the majority of the surviving smolts, now four-year-old adults, would return to the Snake, the number of hatchery spring chinook moving upriver from Dug Bar is projected to be low, Bratcher said.
“While we aren’t expecting a lot of fish, there is a healthy public interest in this fishery and we have decided to open so people can take advantage of that opportunity,” Bratcher said.
He said anglers are much more likely to catch jack salmon than adult fish this year.
The daily bag limit is four hatchery chinook per day, of which only one can be an adult, longer than 24 inches. Anglers must stop fishing for salmon once they have kept one adult hatchery chinook or four hatchery jack salmon.
Barbless hooks, an angling license, a combined angling tag, and a Columbia Basin Endorsement are required when angling for salmon, steelhead, and sturgeon in the Snake River.
The late spring chinook season, and the prospect for fewer fish to show up than usual, is disappointing for Dan Brassard, a longtime salmon angler from Baker County.
Although Brassard said he understands that the lack of smolt releases below Hells Canyon Dam in 2020 means relatively few adult chinook will return this year, he has been following the robust return of salmon on the Columbia River this year.
As of May 15, the adult chinook count passing Bonneville Dam, downriver from Hood River, was 114,663 fish. That’s more than double both the total for the same period in 2021 (50,706) and the five-year average (42,971).
With so many fish available, Brassard wishes ODFW would revive its program, which started in 2004 but hasn’t happened since 2016, of releasing adult hatchery spring chinook in the Powder River in Baker City and below Mason Dam.
Salmon runs were eradicated in the upper Powder River in 1932 when Thief Valley Dam, which lacks fish ladders, was finished.
The salmon releases that started in 2004 weren’t intended to create a salmon run in the Powder River. The goal was to give anglers an opportunity they hadn’t had in the upper reaches of the river for decades.
Brassard said he enjoyed the opportunity to fish for, and catch, salmon in the Powder River.
Smolt releases resumed at Hells Canyon Dam in 2021
The 2022 situation should not be repeated at least for the next couple years.
Sven Berg, a spokesman for Idaho Power, said the company did release spring chinook smolts below Hells Canyon Dam in 2021 and again this year.
That means there should be enough returning four-year-old spring chinook in 2023 and 2024 to return to the customary fishing season starting in late April.
All the smolts raised from eggs collected in 2018 were released at Rapid River and migrated down the Salmon River to the Snake and then the Columbia, Bratcher said.
Rapid River is the priority release site for smolts, he said, so in years, such as 2020, when the number of smolts is unusually low, there aren’t enough to also have a release at Hells Canyon Dam.
Those priorities were established as part of the United States vs. Oregon court case, a continuing federal case, dating to 1968, that is intended to preserve threatened and endangered salmon and steelhead and also balance sportfishing and Tribal fishing rights.
Although wild spring/summer chinook were listed as a threatened species under the federal Endangered Species Act in 1992, limited sportfishing seasons have been allowed because most of the salmon caught are hatchery fish, not wild (non-hatchery) salmon.
The National Marine Fisheries Service, the federal agency that manages anadromous fish, has determined that those limited seasons pose a low risk to wild salmon.
That’s particularly so for the reach of the Snake from Dug Bar to Hells Canyon Dam, Bratcher said. Dug Bar is upriver from the mouths of the Imnaha and Salmon River, and most wild spring chinook return to those river systems rather than continuing upstream to Hells Canyon Dam, which blocks any further passage as there are no fish ladders at the dam.
Anglers are allowed to keep only hatchery fish during the spring chinook season.
Fall chinook changes
That’s not the case with the fall chinook season on the Snake River, Bratcher said.
During the fall chinook season — which starting this year has a standard period of Aug. 18 through Oct. 31, and is no longer set each year based on the timing of salmon returns — anglers can keep one wild chinook per day. Wild fish have an intact adipose fin, as do about 60% of hatchery fall chinook, according to ODFW.
The daily bag limit during the fall chinook season, which extends from the Washington border upriver to Hells Canyon Dam, is three adult fish per day, with no limit on jacks.
Bratcher said fewer fall chinook are returning to the reach of the Snake between the Salmon River and Hells Canyon since the release site for smolts was moved to the Salmon River in 2018, although he didn’t have an estimate of the change in numbers.
Brassard, who said he used to be a regular fall chinook angler below Hells Canyon Dam, said he doesn’t intend to fish there this year because it’s “fruitless” based on the few chinook that return.
He thinks it’s misleading for ODFW to make it a regular season for fall chinook starting this year, even though the number of salmon available has actually declined since the release site was moved to the Salmon River.
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