The fall chinook that return to the free-flowing Hanford Reach of the Columbia River are renown for including a few gargantuan survivors in the 50- to 60-pound range.
Some anglers say they’re seeing fewer of the giant fish being caught in the Vernita area and they wonder if the trophies are being targeted by downstream commercial gillnet fisheries.
Ron Roler, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife Columbia River policy coordinator, said it’s largely a matter of percentages.
“In reality, yes, nets will be somewhat selective toward larger fish, but when the run is this big, that will make virtually no difference,” he said, referring to the record 1.06 million fall chinook predicted to enter the Columbia River system this season.
“Look at commercial fishery openings and then look and Bonneville Dam counts. If there was a dip, it was imperceptible. They’re catching a tiny fraction of what’s going by.”
The answer, he said, is in the age composition of the returning salmon.
Each year’s run of chinook from the ocean to freshwater includes ages ranging from 2 (jacks) to the rare 7-year-old monster.
“The big fish anglers occasionally catch are the 5- to 6-year-olds,” Roller said.
This year’s record run is dominated by 3- and 4 year-olds, weighing roughly 8-18 pounds, the product of two consecutive years of exceptional spring flows that boosted salmon smolts downstream through reservoirs to the ocean.
“The survival rate for young fish during those outmigrations was off the charts,” Roler said, noting that last year’s component of 3-year-olds was big.
However, the older fish age classes date back to years of smaller returns.
When an age group comprises less than 1 percent of a run, the odds are slim that you’ll see one caught, Roler said.