BY MIKE STAHLBERG
The Register-Guard (Used with permission)
Tuesday, May 3, 2011
PORTLAND — Skyscrapers and freeway bridges, not forests and mountaintops, frame the action in what many regard as the prime fishery in Oregon.
Now peaking in Portland, it’s the spring chinook salmon run up the Willamette River.
On a recent Friday, hundreds of anglers dragged herring or prawn baits up and down the city’s watery gut in full view of workers in high-rise office buildings.
“I think it’s pretty unique,” said Chris Kern, a program manager for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife.
“I don’t know too many other places where you can catch a limit of spring chinook right outside the industrial downtown — or watch people out your office window catch salmon.”
The action on the lower Willamette River is of special interest to anglers in the Eugene-Springfield area. Many of the spring chinook passing through Portland will eventually make their way to the McKenzie and Middle Fork Willamette rivers. (The remainder will turn off into the Clackamas and Santiam rivers.)
The Lane County portion of the run peaks in June.
Expectations for the 2011 “springer” fishery are high throughout the Willamette Valley because the salmon are projected to be almost as plentiful as during last year’s banner run.
Anglers in the lower Willamette River (from the river mouth up to Willamette Falls at Oregon City) took home 23,239 fin-clipped spring chinook last spring, according to ODFW creel surveys.
That was the largest harvest since 2001, when the state first began requiring the release of spring chinook with intact adipose fins (to protect wild salmon.)
The final 2010 run count was 110,536 adults, seventh-highest since 1970.
This year’s projected spring chinook run is 104,000, of which 62,400 are expected to be larger 5-year-olds. (Most years, the run is dominated by 3- and 4-year-old salmon).
Five-year-old springers can weight anywhere from 15 to 30 pounds.
No wonder salmon anglers have been eagerly waiting for the 2011 spring chinook fishery to heat up.
“By all indications, we should be thumping ’em,” Eugene fishing guide Todd Linklater said while he and three other anglers trolled in the John’s Landing/Sellwood Bridge section of the river.
A few days earlier, Linklater had caught two fat salmon and one salmon head — the rest of the fish having been gobbled right off the line by a hungry sea lion.
Now Linklater was halfway through a second consecutive slow day on the river, with only one catch to show for it. And that fish threw the hook after 30 seconds.
“This is a crapshoot fishery here,” Linklater said of the lower Willamette. “But it’s nice to see spring start, and to get some fishing in when the weather’s decent.”
He blamed the slow bite in Portland on this spring’s cold run-off.
Even when conditions are ideal, however, the Willamette spring chinook fishery is more famous for the epicurean quality of the fish than for fast-paced action.
Rich in Omega 3 oil, springers routinely bring commercial fishermen the highest price of any fish caught in Oregon. Fresh spring chinook was selling for $29 a pound at one Eugene fish market last month.
Sport fishermen, however, can take home two spring chinook a day for the price of an Oregon fishing license and a salmon-steelhead-halibut tag.
Plus, of course, what sometimes turns out to be many hours of rod-tip watching.
If there’s a catch to the urban spring chinook fishery, it’s that catch rates can be discouragingly low.
That was certainly the case during March and April.
Through April 25, anglers in the lower Willamette River had kept 3,866 springers, according to ODFW fish checkers. By the same date last year, the harvest tally was 10,254.
Asked if the low harvest is a sign that the 2011 run might in fact be much smaller than predicted, ODFW’s Kern replied: “It’s hard to say because the water conditions have been pretty poor up until very recently. ... The river was too cold and muddy to fish” until mid-April.
The catch rate did improve the week of April 18-25, the most recent one for which figures are available. During that period, 9,618 angler trips produced 1,831 salmon, for a success rate of 19 percent.
Meanwhile, it’s almost certain that the spring chinook fishery above Willamette Falls will be late starting this season.
As of April 29, only 1,938 adult salmon had been counted passing through the fish ladder at Oregon City. On that date last year, the count was 15,317.
The upriver movement of the bulk of the spring chinook run is generally triggered by water temperatures of 53-54 degrees. Oregon’s cold spring resulted in water temperatures in the Willamette near Portland that were above 50 degrees on only two days so far this spring. Last year, the water temperature was above 50 degrees every day starting April 14.
Jeff Ziller, the ODFW’s district fish biologist in Springfield, says he’s “cautiously optimistic” about this year’s salmon run in the McKenzie and Middle Fork Willamette rivers.
“But I’m always a bit nervous when the prediction is for a run top-heavy with 5-year-olds,” Ziller said. “We’ve had several instances in the past where they didn’t show.”
Meanwhile, Linklater found a bright spot in the slow fishing at Portland.
“The fewer fish caught in Portland, the more that make it to Eugene,” he said, adding that salmon are easier to target in the smaller Lane County rivers than in the quarter-mile wide lower Willamette.
Thus, if the fishery managers’ predictions are correct, there should be thousands of salmon coming soon to a city near you.
Follow the progress of the Willamette spring chinook run and harvest at: