Monday, June 28, 2010

The Columbia River

With a strong Spring Chinook run already in the books, and more to come this summer and fall, a record setting Sockeye run in progress and early returns of steelhead looking extremely promising it's looking like another amazing year on the Columbia system, made more amazing by the fact that the river and its fish have continued to overcome so many insults and still gives so much. Last year's return of steelhead was the second largest on record behind 2001 and fishing was phenomenal. Unfortunately, along with large numbers of fish come larger numbers of anglers. Still, its hard to get too uptight with so many fish around.

The Columbia is a special system and sadly behind the Sacramento it is the most degraded, damned and generally hosed large, salmon bearing river system on the west coast. Yet somehow the fish hold on. Not only are they holding on, they're producing numbers unseen by modern man with a little help from ocean conditions, favorable outmigration, and increased spill mandated by the man who should be a hero to every steelhead angler worth his wading boots, Judge James Redden. The Columbia is also spectacular for its diversity. By my count more than 20 rivers between the mouth and the headwaters support decent to excellent summer steelhead fishing depending on the year, and rivers like the Kalama, D, Grande Ronde, Clearwater are as important to the history of steelhead flyfishing culture as any. Summer steelhead bring out hordes like almost no other fish, and sure many of the fish on the Columbia system are of hatchery origin. But in among the hordes and the masses of fin clipped hatchery fish swim some of the most aggressive, acrobatic and beautiful wild steelhead on the planet. So much soul in those little one salt fish that recklessly grab small, sparse flies fish in or near the surface, screaming downstream with seemingly impossible speed, cartwheeling as they desperately fight to throw the hook. Who could ask for more from a sport fish?

What makes me sad about the Columbia is to think of just how good it COULD be. The four lower Snake River dams remain in place, and are substantial obstacles to the recovery of ESA listed Sockeye, Chinook and Steelhead in the Snake system. Imagine how different rivers like the Snake, Ronde, and Clearwater would be without those four fish killing dams reducing the survival of outmigrating smolts? How productive would the Salmon, Selway, Middle Fork Clearwater be with huge slugs of wild spawning salmon every year? It boggles the mind. This year Columbia River Sockeye will break a long standing record of the largest return since the construction of Bonneville dam started modern era fish counting, and in all likelihood fewer than 2000 sockeye will return to their natal rivers in the Upper Snake system. The record since the construction of Lower Granite, set two years ago is 1200 fish, probably 1% of historic run size for the productive lakes of the Salmon and Snake River system. Most of the Sockeye entering the Columbia this year are bound for the Okanagan and Wenatchee systems, just imagine if the Snake wasn't hindered by four lower river dams...

The Columbia was once the greatest salmon bear river on earth, providing nourishment both literally and spiritually for more than a dozen tribes of native Americans. While it has been driven to a shadow of its former might by the shortsighted hydro projects, irrigation, overharvest to name a few, the fish remain resolved to continue the legacy of their forebearers, migrating a thousand miles to the rivers of Idaho, Eastern Oregon, and the Eastslope of the Cascades. With our help these fish can continue to give so much to our region, tying us together as totems of our shared culture. We the citizens of the northwest are modern day salmon people and it is imperative that we fight to protect that foundation of our culture. For one more year we can enjoy their bounty, knowing well that without action now their future remains tenuous,let this year of abundance inspire us to action on their behalf, knowing just what the Columbia River could be without the four lower Snake dams. Long live the Columbia and its mighty runs of salmon.


  1. Is there any way to quantify the specific effect(s) of increased spill on fish survival in the Columbia? How much of what we are seeing is related to the spills, and how much is related to ocean survival? I know that's a tall order. Would be a good topic for an article in The Osprey. I want to believe the spill is a big part of this recovery, but I'm leary of those who pose for photo opps at every opportunity to futher their politics, whichever camp they belong to. So far the hard data seems to be hidden...

  2. its certainly a combination of both and the effects of spill v. productive ocean environment are different between species. I have yet to see anyone look at the issue quantitatively and what little I've seen has been highly political as you say. UW's columbia basin research group does some work on fish passage, survival etc and there is pit tag data available on their website which can be converted into survival estimates. Maybe check out their webpage as a starting point. If you find any scholarly articles of interest shoot me an email and I can get them too you.

  3. Two dudes, and other wild eyed fish hugging, OCD embracing salmon and steelhead worshipers: listen up. there is so much doo-doo out there that is labeled as "data" that its interpretation is quite a challenge. The highly paid lawyers for the irrigation industry, the big power production and consumption interests, the beneficiaries of the current river transportation system, and a few others, stack their science on the pile that says that spill is inferior to transportation. Some have traded silence on the issue for cash, or for hatchery fish, so I hear. At some point, given that not all of us are ever gonna be capable of critically evaluating all the dodo-doo, ya gotta decide who to trust. I know a guy I trust. He says that spill has been a HUGE asset to sockeye, in particular, and to steelhead making the longest downstream migrations as well. He taunts me with the possibility of two to three HUNDRED THOUSAND wild summer/fall chinok spawning in the main-stem if the 4 not-worth-a-dang Snake River dams could be breached. I say follow your gut. I say that spill helped 50% and ocean helped 50%. Who knows or gives-a-rip if I;m off by a few percentage points? Spill counts. The Ocean counts. Give me spill on a lousy ocean and the fish will do a heck of a lot better. That's my story and I'm stickin' to it. You fellas are welcome to spend your weekends analyzing he data. Me? Goin' fishin.' JN