The first four spring chinook of the season have been noted by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife — and thousands more aren't far behind.
The first springer was reported on Wednesday by a commercial fisherman working the Columbia River downstream of the Cowlitz/Wahkiakum line. The salmon sold for $16 a pound, according to WDFW.
A second spring chinook weighing 24.5 pounds was caught between the mouth of the Lewis River and the Clark/Skamania county line.
Two more were counted Thursday, including one at Bonneville Dam.
Springers will be moving into the Columbia River in increasing numbers in the weeks ahead, setting the stage for one of the state's most popular fisheries. Anglers typically start landing early-returning springers in early February, but the fishery usually doesn't catch fire until March, according to WDFW.
"This is a good time to dust off your gear, prepare your boat and maybe do a little prospecting," Joe Hymer, a fish biologist for the WDFW, said in a news release. "You want to be ready to go when the bulk of the run arrives."
According to the pre-season forecast, a total of 198,400 upriver spring chinook will return to the Columbia River Basin this year - well below last year's run of 315,345, but close to the 10-year average. Then again, 40,000 of this year's fish are expected to be five-year-olds, compared to 7,855 last year. In addition, 62,400 of the 104,000 fish headed back to the Willamette River are projected to be five-year-olds.
"We're definitely expecting more big fish this year," Hymer said. "Five-year-olds can run from 18 to 30 pounds apiece."
Fishery managers from Washington and Oregon are scheduled to meet Feb. 8 to work out fishing seasons and regulations for both the spring chinook fishery and sturgeon fishery below Bonneville Dam.
In meetings with advisory groups, biologists have said that it appears spring chinook fishing in the lower Columbia River may be open daily upstream to Rooster Rock, or even to Beacon Rock, this year. But fishing probably won't be open very late into April, when the bulk of the salmon enter the river
In the meantime, seasons and regulations listed in the 2010-11 Fishing in Washington pamphlet(http://wdfw.wa.gov/fishing/regulations/) will remain in effect.
Fishing for spring chinook is currently open on the Columbia River below the Interstate 5 Bridge, where the limit is two adult fish per day. Anglers may also retain two adult springers per day on the Cowlitz and Deep rivers, but are limited to one adult fish a day on the Lewis and Kalama rivers.
"The Cowlitz River and waters near the Willamette River are probably the best bets early in the season, because spring chinook usually start showing up there first," Hymer said.
Anglers continue to reel in steelhead from waters ranging from the Cowlitz River to the John Day Pool and beyond. In general, the steelhead in the lower tributaries are winter-run fish, while those above Bonneville Dam are left over from last year's summer run, Hymer said.
This week, the Cowlitz is high and turbid. At Blue Creek, 10 bank anglers caught only one adult steelhead during 25 hours of effort, and it had to be release because it was too small. At Mission Bar and the barrier dam, a total of seven anglers had no fish. No fishing effort was observed near I-5 and Olequa.
"Hatchery-reared late-run winter steelhead are still moving up the Cowlitz and Kalama rivers and should be available to anglers for weeks to come," Hymer said.
Columbia River anglers can retain one sturgeon per day in the lower Columbia below the Wauna powerlines or in the Bonneville, The Dalles or John Day pools. Anglers can also retain a fish per day Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays from the Wauna powerlines to Bonneville Dam.
Fishing strategies vary from area to area. Hymer said boat anglers fishing the Bonneville Pool have done well by anchoring above the deeper holes and plunking with smelt, squid, sand shrimp, or roll-top herring. In the lower river, anglers have had some success fishing for sturgeon that gravitate toward the warmer waters flowing from the Willamette River. Fishing for smelt is closed to humans, but sturgeon still follow them up the Cowlitz River as far as Castle Rock, where anglers are waiting for them.
Fishery managers are scheduled to set new seasons for sturgeon Feb. 8. Until then, most seasons and regulations listed in the 2010-11 Fishing in Washington pamphlet will remain in effect until then.
Battle Ground Lake and Klineline Pond are both scheduled to be stocked with 2,000 half-pound rainbows from Vancouver Hatchery in February. But fishing could be just as good on 13 other regional lakes that were stocked with tens of thousands of trout in January.
"Those fish - particularly the bigger ones - tend to stick around for a while when the weather is cold and anglers don't spend as much time on the water," Hymer said. "That will change once the weather breaks and fishing picks up."
Silver Lake received 3,001 catchable-size rainbows on Jan. 18. Carlisle Lake near Onalaska was planted with 60 8-pounders on Jan. 19.
The weekly trout-stocking schedule is available on the WDFW website at http://wdfw.wa.gov/fishing/plants/weekly/.