Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Coming Soon: Upriver Brights

The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife is forecasting a run of 269,300 upper Columbia River spring chinook this year, the third highest run since 1977. Of course, WDFW has been wrong before, so here at FOTL we won't be holding our breath—but we will be thinking about getting in on the action.

Apparently the getting should be good, because the state fish commission voted last week to re-jigger the catch allocations—in favor of recreational anglers. This is somewhat complicated stuff, but the bottom line is this: Columbia River wild spring chinook are listed under the Endangered Species Act; only 2 percent of the wild run can suffer mortality in the fishery for the hatchery spring chinook. Once that quota is reached, the fishery is closed. Under the new rules, the quota will be weighted toward recreational anglers vs. commercial at 65-35 percent.

Fishing chat boards all over the Northwest have been in full rejoice mode over the run numbers. The upper Columbia River spring chinook, known as "upriver brights," are among the most coveted of all the salmon. Sure, we hear about well marketed Alaskan salmon like Copper River sockeye and Yukon chinook, but ask salmon connoisseurs and commercial fishermen what race of salmon they'd most like to slap on the barbecue and you'll hear a nearly unanimous vote for Columbia springers. The only problem is that most years there isn't a big enough run to open a significant fishery.

Because the springers enter the river earlier and travel farther than almost any other race of salmon, they've evolved a life history that enables them to survive in a freshwater environment longer than is usual. This results in nickel-bright fish well up into the system, fish with a high fat content (read: flavor) and nice firm flesh. Before the Columbia and its major tribs were turned into a series of slackwater reservoirs for hydropower, irrigation, barging, and flood-control, the system famously produced strains of giant chinook that migrated deep into the mountain streams of Idaho, including the notorious "June hogs," which could tip the scales in excess of 100 pounds!

Native Americans revered the spring chinook. With the “First Salmon Ceremony,” a ritual common to many of the Northwestern tribes, they offered their respects at the beginning of the run to the Salmon People who sent their ambassadors up the rivers each year to nourish the tribes. The first salmon was captured and brought to the village as an honored guest, where it was ritualistically prepared and eaten by all members of the community. In this way, the tribe hoped the salmon would feel welcome and well treated and would return again. The skeleton of the first salmon was then floated back downriver so it could receive a dignified burial and reincarnation.

We'll be keeping our eye on how this highly touted fishery plays out. It's a serious gear show, so here at FOTL—primarily a fly-flinging outfit—we have some boning up to do. More to come...

(The photo above by D. Ryan/AP shows spring chinook navigating the Bonneville Dam fish ladder.)

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