WALLA WALLA -- If predictions pan out, salmon fishermen may soon be in hog heaven.
Wildlife officials are expecting the largest return of fall chinook salmon to the Columbia and Snake rivers in years. The large return should allow fishing along the entire length of the Snake River excluding the section below the U.S. Highway 12 bridge near Pasco, said Glen Mendel of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife office in Dayton.
"This is the first year that we've been able to open the entire Snake River," said Mendel, who is the district fishery management biologist. The forecast is for 60,000 to 80,000 fish passing by Lower Granite Dam with up to 30,000 of those being jacks, or immature fish, he said.
That number is well above last year's fall chinook run, which was just over 41,000 fish. "It was an extremely large run and we haven't seen that in decades," Mendel said.
Mike Bireley, Tri-State Steelheaders executive director, said the numbers of returning salmon are unprecedented. "There are few anglers still living that can remember these numbers of salmon available in the Snake (River) system," he said.
Mendel said state officials have notified federal officials of the plan for salmon and steelhead fisheries in Southeastern Washington and a decision was expected to be announced today or Friday. The proposed daily limit would be three adult fish and three jacks during the season, which would run from Sept. 1 through Oct. 31.
The catch limits would apply to hatchery salmon only. Wild salmon that do not have the clipped fins that mark hatchery salmon must be released.
The overall forecast for the Columbia River and its tributaries is for 766,000 adult fall chinook to return this year, a number that would top last year's total of 657,000 fish. This would constitute the fifth largest run since 1948, Cindy LeFleur, Columbia River policy coordinator for WDFW said earlier this year.
LeFleur said in May that more than half of the chinook forecast, about 398,000 salmon, is expected to be "upriver brights" headed to the Hanford Reach area and the Snake River. That would be the second largest run of upriver brights since 1964, when fishery managers began keeping records.
"This should be a good year for upriver brights, which provide some of the best in-river fishing opportunities for anglers," she said.
Large numbers of returning salmon are also expected in the Clearwater River in Idaho and Grand Ronde River in Oregon. Idaho has set its fall chinook season to run from Sept. 1 through Oct. 31 with a daily limit of six adults and no limit on jacks.
In Idaho, the Snake River will be open for fishing from the Washington-Idaho line upstream to Hells Canyon Dam and the Clearwater River will be open from its mouth up to Memorial Bridge.
Mendel said one welcome side effect of the fall chinook run will be the economic benefits to local communities serving the needs of anglers. For every salmon or steelhead caught, officials estimate fishermen spend hundreds of dollars on tackle, fuel, boating gear, lodging, meals and other expenses.
And speaking of tackle, Bireley noted that fishermen may face a learning curve when going after fall chinook.
Those fish have different behavior patterns and characteristics than steelhead and spring chinook, requiring the use of different techniques, he said. Toward that end, the Tri-State Steelheaders soon hope to stage a fishing clinic in Walla Walla for fall chinook salmon to help anglers pick up tips.
In any case, the coming weeks could be good ones for many on the river, Bireley said.
"It has the makings of an exceptionally good season," he said. "All the indications are it could be a bang-up year."
Andy Porter can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 526-8318.