Hefty fall chinook are returning to local rivers, whetting the appetites of anglers congregating on beaches and lining up to launch their boats. Though more than a half million fall chinook are expected to return to the Columbia River system this year, anglers won’t be allowed to catch as many in tributaries as in past seasons.
That’s because the Department of Fish and Wildlife is reducing the number of hatchery fish, which can overwhelm wild fish on spawning grounds.
So this year more hatchery fall chinook will be captured at weirs and given to food banks. Others will be clonked over the head so their carcasses can be dumped on spawning grounds as “nutrient enhancement” for wild fish.
The state Department of Fish and Wildlife’s plans have drawn the ire of at least a few residents who want the fish kept in rivers to improve angling.
“We objected that Kalama River fishermen wouldn’t have anything to fish for,” said Fred Palmer, a board member of the Kalama Sportsmen’s Club.
“This is so wrong,” said Harold Doering of Grays River. “They are killing fish they don’t think belong in this river. Who are they to play God?”
On the Kalama, the WDFW used to take the fall chinook it needed for broodstock at the hatchery and returned the rest of them into the river.
“Now only a portion will go in the river,” said Pat Frazier, WDFW regional fish manager. Frazier said. “That’s where the frustration is coming in. It doesn’t make sense to people.”
However, Kalama fall chinook are listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. They spawn mostly in the lower 10 miles of the Kalama.
The changes in hatchery operations are an outgrowth of several management plans, including one that’s before the Fish and Wildlife Commission now, said Mark Johnson, manager of Southwest Washington hatcheries.
“ ‘Hatchery reform’ catches it in a nutshell,” Johnson said.
The reforms include reducing plants of hatchery winter steelhead on the Coweeman and South Fork Toutle rivers and closing the Elochoman Hatchery.
According to Palmer, the WDFW originally planned to stop all fall chinook at the Modrow trap in the lower Kalama until he objected and called for a public meeting. Now, the Modrow trap will be left open Fridays through Sundays so fall chinook can swim upstream, where anglers can catch them.
“We didn’t agree to it,” Palmer said of the plan to operate the trap four days a week. “It’s our only choice right now.”
For years, Palmer has volunteered for the odiferous job of driving spawned-out hatchery fish carcasses into the Kalama’s upper reaches and pitchforking them onto the banks. The decomposing carcasses provide nutrients for spawning wild fish and the surrounding forest. In 2003, the WDFW named Palmer a volunteer of the year for his help.
Palmer said if the agency had killed all the fall chinook not needed for broodstock this year, he would have hauled those carcasses to the WDFW regional office in Vancouver rather than to remote stretches of river.
“I’m not kidding,” Palmer said. “I was going to dump them in that parking lot. It makes no sense”
Just how many fish will be killed depends on the run size, Frazier said. This year’s Kalama fall chinook run is forecast at 13,000, with 3,400 fish needed for egg take.
Even though the WDFW is removing more adult fall chinook from the Kalama, it’s increasing the production of juvenile fish there from 5 to 7 million.
The 2 million increase is to make up for decreases in other rivers, Frazier said. Many of the fall chinook produced on the Kalama are caught in the ocean or lower Columbia River, he said. “A lot of those will be harvested before they get back.”
The Modrow trap stops fall chinook. Most steelhead and coho can squeeze between slats on the weir.
Palmer also volunteers to take surplus coho from the hatchery that are edible to Kalama Helping Hands, a food bank.
Fish traps will keep hatchery fish away from parts of other rivers, too.
This is the second year the WDFW has placed a weir in the Grays River to prevent stray hatchery fall chinook from swimming upstream. The Grays has been designated a wild chinook refuge.
The weir stops about 100 fall chinook that would otherwise be available for anglers.
Doering said he’s been calling state legislators to object to the weir.
“Everyone I’ve talked to along the Grays River, they feel the same way,” Doering said. “This is not right.”
This year, an existing trap on the Elochoman “will be operated probably a little more aggressively,” Johnson said. “The goal is to extract the hatchery fish.“
In the next year or two, the DFW plans to install a trap on the Washougal River so hatchery fish can be removed, Frazier said.
“One of the challenges for us as an agency is that people don’t believe the underlying message at times,” he said.
But the WDFW is committed to treating wild fish and hatchery fish differently.
“If you can’t buy that it makes absolutely no sense,” Frazier said.