Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Warts and All

We're loaded for bear here at FOTL. Just picked up an arsenal of lures, swivels, weights, and the incomparable Smelly Jelly. The last four days have seen more than a thousand Columbia River spring chinook counted over Bonneville Dam each day, with more than 2,000 on two of those days. The time is now.

Down at the tackle shop the boys are talking up the Mag Wart, pictured above. Aren't those tempting little buggers? Personally, the hot red color has me fired up. I can just see my fly-fishing bretheren rolling their eyes. Look how far he's fallen. Thee Originoo Trouthole shakes his head sadly. What can I say? Fishin' is fishin'. I'll save the flyrod for shad. The chinook get the wart.

I've never fished for springers before, so this is terra incognita—or aqua incognita, as the case may be. My plan is to drive down next week and camp somewhere in the Gorge, then spend a day at the mouth of the Little White Salmon River—a place known, rather unfortunately, as Drano Lake—and see if I can hook into one of these upriver brights from the bank. It's mostly a boat show, so my expectations are not high, but I figure I'll learn a ton on this first exploratory mission.

Salmon aficionados consider Columbia River spring chinook to be quite possibly the tastiest salmon of them all. What makes spring chinook so special is their high fat content, fat translating into flavor. As the name implies, springers return to their natal rivers earlier than summer and fall chinook, which means they must survive the rigors of a freshwater environment for a longer stretch until the fall spawn begins. Since they won't be eating during that time, their bodies are equipped to handle the holdover with extra fat reserves.

If they're not eating, you might reasonably ask, how do you get them to strike a lure? Short answer: piss 'em off. The Mag Warts are outfitted with rattles to irritate the salmon, and they thrash around like an injured baitfish. A honking big buck of a springer just can't help himself; he must take a nip out of the Wart as it swims past his nose. In theory, at least.

This year's run of upper Columbia River springers, forecasted at 269,300 fish, is the third largest since 1977. This causes no end of confusion among those who don't closely follow the plight of salmon and salmon fisheries. Wasn't most of the West Coast just closed to salmon fishing? they ask. Yes, but not for the current springer run. The summer and fall runs, especially those in California, are looking dismal, hence the emergency closure. The springers are in better shape this year, and at FOTL we hope to tie into one and offer up a recipe or two soon.


valereee said...

What's the difference between springer and the others? And why is one in trouble and not the other?

Langdon Cook said...

Well, to be honest, they're all in trouble based on historical run sizes. This year's spring chinook have returned in large enough numbers to the Columbia system to open a significant recreational fishery. These are "hatchery" fish--fish raised in state and federal hatcheries solely for the purpose of harvest; wild fish that spawn in the river must be released.

As a rule, Columbia fish runs go up and down largely because of dam operations. If enough water is spilled over the dams to help the young, out-migrating fish get to the sea, then they come back in good numbers. If too much water is siphoned off for agriculture, power, etc., or there's drought, then the fish are in trouble.

Ocean conditions are also a factor. In California, where the Sacramento River chinook (these are summer and fall fish, not "springers") have crashed, the feds are trying to lay much of the blame on ocean conditions, which--apart from climate change--are largely beyond our control, and thus not reason for human beings to change their profligate ways (so the thinking goes). But most folks following the issue would place equal blame on habitat destruction and the state's insatiable thirst for water. Bottom line: salmon need water. Sounds obvious, but we're trying to have it both ways.

Anonymous said...

spinners, fin! don't forget your spinners!

Hunter Angler Gardener Cook said...

Die, Finspot, Die! OK, that was a knee-jerk reflex from a Californian who is about to go through A Year Without Salmon. I am already twitching...

Just a correction, though on Sac River salmon: There is indeed a spring run, and our springers are as fantastic as yours. That is, when we're allowed to catch them, sniff, sniff.

Water flows are a big deal with our crash, but there is definitely something going on out in the ocean, because we're not getting returns from the ocean. It's weird.

Habitat isn't as big a deal with salmon, because it has not been degraded much in the past 20 years or so. Salmon spawn way up high in the river system, and it's the Delta that's FUBAR.

Oh well, it'll be shad and stripers for me this year.

Langdon Cook said...

Thanks for the correction, Hank. So what's the status of the springers in the Sac? We keep hearing about the summer and fall runs getting hammered--is it the same story with the springers? If so, it would indeed point to issues with the delta, because as far as I know, the Columbia's real problems are further upstream. But when you're talking about West Coast salmon, it's all fugazi to a certain extent.

Sorry you're dorked this year. Hopefully the wake-up call will be heeded.

Langdon Cook said...

Hank, I think I mis-read your comment about the Sac delta. From what I understand, those fish migrate into SF Bay before heading to the open ocean. If the delta/estuary and the bay are in bad shape, then the juveniles have a tough time finding food and shelter during a vulnerable period in their development. Ocean conditions have definitely been poor, but I have to think the human impact is the real culprit in a crash of this magnitude.

Anyway, have fun with those stripers. I've never fished for them before but they're supposed to be good sport and very tasty.