Rob Phillips: Columbia fish numbers strong, supported by shad and sockeye salmon | Outdoors and leisure

The folks who oversee fish counting procedures at dams on the lower Columbia River have been busy lately. Not only is this prime time for the almost always heavy run of shad coming up the big river, but a nice run of sockeye salmon are returning to the river in greater numbers than expected.

On Monday alone, more than 243,000 shad migrated through the fish ladders at Bonneville Dam, along with 40,584 sockeye, 4,584 summer chinook and nearly 1,600 rainbow trout. Add some trevally salmon and 264 lamprey eels and it’s a busy day for the counters.

According to Andy Walgamott’s ever-informative posts on Northwest Sportsman magazine’s Facebook page, Monday’s sockeye count was the second-highest daily count since 1938, the year Bonneville was built. Only the sockeye count of 41,573 on June 26, 2012 was higher.

We’ll have to wait and see what the final total is for this year’s sockeye run, but Monday’s total of 239,575 runs was already well above the pre-season forecast of 198,700. In 2012, when the largest number of days was recorded, the total sockeye return was over half a million.

The largest recorded run of sockeye salmon on the Columbia occurred in 2014, when 614,179 fish were counted at Bonneville. Normally, the peak of the sockeye run at the first dam on the Columbia is this week, so all sockeye anglers are watching with great anticipation to see where this year’s run will end.

The summer chinook of 4,584 over Bonneville on Monday was the highest day count this month and was well ahead of last year’s 1,777 and June 26’s 10-year average of 2,209. current summer chinook is just above the 10-year average.

Hopefully this all means good fishing in the days and weeks ahead. The seemingly always huge streak of shad once provided excellent fishing in the lower Columbia just below Bonneville Dam.

The Columbia below Pasco is currently closed to sockeye salmon fishing, but the river above Pasco to Priest Rapids Dam is open to fishing and anglers are just beginning to catch the tasty salmon. So far just over 50,000 sockeye have migrated through the ladders of McNary Dam, and with more to come, fishing in the stretch of the river around and above the Tri-Cities will go from better and better.

On Friday, the Columbia above Priest Rapids to Wells Dam will be open for summer chinook and sockeye fishing. One of the favorite spots for anglers when this part of the river opens up is in the turbulent waters just below the Wanapum Dam. With only about 2,000 sockeye and 3,000 chinook salmon above Priest Rapids so far, it may be a bit early, but it’s a safe bet that plenty of anglers will be heading to the fishing hole of the Wanapum dam.

Cooler temperatures and higher waters this year have been good for salmon migration. In 2015, a year when river waters were low, the Columbia River reached deadly hot temperatures, which ended up killing tens of thousands of sockeye salmon.

That year, the sockeye run over Bonneville exceeded 510,000, but large numbers of fish perished between Bonneville and the McNary Dams due to low water and very hot temperatures in July.

That shouldn’t be a problem this year.

The majority of chinook salmon that come up the Columbia go up the Columbia. Some of the best fishing for big chinook is found in the Columbia near Chelan Falls and in the waters around Brewster and Bridgeport.

Sockeye salmon head to the Snake River, Wenatchee River, and Okanogan River. In some years there are enough fish to provide a sport fishery on Lake Wenatchee, but the main sockeye salmon fishery in the upper Columbia is in Brewster Basin, where the salmon rest before moving up the Okanogan River.

Anglers working the Brewster Pool have a chance of catching both the biggest chinook and the small, but good sockeye. The best fishing in this part of Colombia usually takes place in late July and early August.

A few sockeye salmon also return to the Yakima River each summer. Hopefully this year’s big rebound in sockeye numbers will bode well for the sockeye run up the Yakima. Biologists have been trying to restore and build the stream of our local river for years.

The 10-year average of sockeye returning to Yakima is just over 2,500. Last year only 95 sockeye were counted at Roza Dam, so we could really use a boost.

Monday was a big day at Bonneville Dam. The people counting the fish coming up the dam’s fish ladders had their hands full. It’s encouraging to see for sure.

I hope there are more to come. Not just for this year, but for the foreseeable future.

• Rob Phillips is an award-winning freelance outdoor writer who wrote the Northwest Sportsman column for over 30 years. He can be reached at [email protected]

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