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Season looking good for chinook springers

Despite grim outlook for commercial ocean fishing, recreational anglers on Columbia River face decent runs
by: Lona Pierce, Columbia County Sheriff's Deputy Larry Weaver checks Billy Fisher's boating
equipment and fishing license — all found in good order — at Scappoose Bay Marina on Saturday morning. Fisher, from Scappoose, was heading out to Multnomah Channel to try his luck at catching a spring chinook.

Recreational spring chinook fishing opened Monday in the Lower Columbia River, and in spite of reports to the contrary, there are quite a few hatchery fish to catch. Ocean salmon fishing along the coast may not open at all because of very poor numbers returning to the Sacramento River in California, and the Willamette River chinook run is also weak this year. Notably, the Columbia River spring chinook run that heads to Bonneville Dam is predicted to be the third highest since 1977. Coastal rivers are open to fishing, too.

Small-business owner Deborah McQueen, who runs the Extreme Marine and Outdoor shop next to Sears in Scappoose, is enthusiastic about salmon fishing prospects but says the poor runs are what everyone is talking about. 'It gets confusing for the fishermen,' she said. 'We're in the middle of a record run of spring chinook up the Columbia.' McQueen's shop sells bait, lures, and other gear for local sportsmen, and she is unhappy that there hasn't been more publicity about the good Columbia return.

The Columbia River has been restricted until now to salmon fishing upriver of the Interstate 5 bridge, to protect fish heading to the Willamette. Now, chinook fishing is open in the lower stretches for 10 days, as well. The Multnomah Channel has also been open for fishing, but muddy conditions during the recent rains dropped the success rate.

McQueen predicts a good fishing season for 'springers,' especially since gillnetters are excluded from the lower river this year. 'All the fish are getting through,' McQueen said. 'The gillnetters aren't selective. They stretch their nets across the river and get steelhead, native and hatchery, sturgeon, bycatch - all gets killed and caught.

'Prescott should be better than previous years - a good run and no gillnetters.' She did point out that gillnetters have a right to make a living like anyone else, but she wants them to use more selective techniques to catch salmon, such as hook and line.

Joe Salvey of Scappoose, a professional guide and owner of Fishhawk Adventures (www.fishhawkadventures.com), confirms that people have been catching fish. 'Fishing's actually pretty good,' Salvey said. He took a group of three fishermen out on Friday upriver of the I-5 bridge and all had caught their daily limit of one-salmon each within two hours. With the lower river open, he thinks success will be even better. 'It's going to be a really great scenario. Gillnets for the first time ever are restricted to the upper river. There will be no competition in the Lower Columbia - lots of fish,' Salvey said. 'Tell these guys to get out there on the water. The run is in full swing.'

Kim Shade, who manages Scappoose Bay Marina for the Port of St. Helens, agrees that news of poor runs affects the number of fishermen who head out, even if the spring chinook run is good. Salmon runs were strong in 2003 and 2004, and the marina was busy. 'We had a banner year in '03 and '04; everyone was so excited,' Shade said. The marina sold a high of 696 annual launch permits in 2004. This year, the number is down to 207. The annual fees have remained unchanged during that time, and the permits are usually purchased by February. She attributes the reduced interest in annual permits to predicted poor fish runs.

A marina survey completed in 2003 by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers showed that recreational fishing adds $13.8 million to Oregon's economy each year. The majority of boaters, 68 percent, said they engaged in fishing during their last boating trip, and they spent on average more than $150 in various expenses per day.

Jim Lichotowich, fish biologist and author, stands back from the argument over who gets the fish. 'What's going on now between gillnetters and fishermen has been ongoing for 100 years - trappers, trollers, now commercial vs. recreational,' he said quietly. 'Who gets the fish is a political decision.

Referring to poor ocean conditions that are chiefly blamed for the weak runs, Lichotowich said, 'We've been stripping away biodiversity from the salmon, relying on just a few fish - so when we get a problem now, the population crashes.

'What happens to salmon in fresh water carries over to the ocean. Long term, if we don't start fixing the rivers, the problem will continue,' he concluded.

This year's combined run of spring and summer Columbia River chinook is expected to be about 321,300. Last year it was only 127,000, a far cry from spring and summer runs in the 1800s numbering 8 to 10 million fish.