Dec. 31–Those ceremonial fish are important. Not just any fish will do for the first foods ceremony. They are caught, prepared and eaten with strict adherence to the Seven Drums religious tradition.
In May, the count gave evidence of a bad year. News reports predicted doom. Even Oregonian sports columnist John Canzano got in on the story, wondering when the fish would just give up.
They expected less than the 10-year average of spring chinook. Fisheries managers talked about limiting the days of the season. They were carefully managing the run and using many complex strategies to conserve the run.
With the below-average expectations, upstream interests encouraged a reserved approach to management. Tribal representatives and Idaho Department of Fish and Game encouraged a more conservative start to the season to assure that more fish would be allowed to proceed upstream and spawn.
In early 2013, every stakeholder agency was proposing ways to limit fishing.
The summer chinook run was forecast to be nearly average and came in a bit below average. The forecast was about 9 percent less than the actual run.
As fall chinook moved upstream, fish passed through the Bonneville dam in record numbers. Fish were being caught day after day. The prediction, which began at 141,500 in winter 2012, had dropped as low as 95,000, but was now at 115,000.
By September, news organizations were reporting a record run of fall chinook. They counted 613,700 by Sept. 13. At the peak of the run, nearly 64,000 fish passed the viewing windows in a single day. The unprecedented numbers prompted fisheries managers to extend sport, commercial and tribal fishing seasons and expand daily bag limits.
When the numbers were tallied in December, total returns of more than 1.2 million fall chinook were close to twice the original forecast of 678,000. Now, predictions for 2014 are similar to the reality of 2013. They also predict improved numbers of coho salmon, shad and smelt.
The reasons for this record run are complex and not completely understood. Most biologists credit ocean conditions. They are looking at other data in tributaries, such as water temperatures, fish passage agreements, stream habitat, and tributary numbers/fish migrating back to see how those may correlate.
While they had been anticipating good fall fisheries from the beginning, it was the fall chinook run that surprised everyone. The Upriver Bright Fall Chinook were responsible for the record run.
Most of us may take a passing interest when a news story crosses our path. But, for tribal fishers, the fish count numbers have deep significance.
After a disappointing late spring run, they were ready to fish. I made more than a dozen trips from April to September to document their fishing exploits.
I’ll never forget the Gunnier brothers at Lyle Falls pulling up three huge chinook at time in their dipnets. Or tribal elder Russell Jim smiling after pulling the lever that released the first return of sockeye salmon to Lake Cle Elum in 100 years. I saw tribal fisherman Andrew Wildbill carefully navigating slippery rocks as he gathered lamprey from Willamette Falls. I was there when Doug Rigdon unloaded the fish he bought at Lyle Falls to sell in Hood River. I sat on Koberg Beach and listened to Randy Settler’s stories about fishing with his family on that same beach as a child. I was in the boat with tribal fishermen Reggie Grace and Samuel George at sunset as they pulled their boat by hand under the gill net and passed fish off for storage in the cooler. I watched from my kayak as Jason Rau fished for chinook with hoop nets off a scaffold hanging from the cliff face at Koberg Beach near Hood River.
Every one of these experiences reinforced what I learned at the first foods ceremony that April. Salmon are an integral part of the Columbia River tribal culture. It’s an important component of their religion. It drives their economy. It puts food on their table. It provides a job and purpose.
They work hard to save the salmon and in return, the salmon saves them.
Scott Learn’s story on steelhead restoration on Hood River.
Story in Chinook Observer predicting spring chinook run.
Photos and Video of sockeye return.
Bill Monroe reports on 2014 predictions.