RIGGINS, Idaho - Finally, when time seemed to be running out on endangered salmon and steelhead, nature stepped up to the plate and hit a home run, Sammy Sosa-style, out of the park. This past spring, an estimated 600,000 chinook and 1.5 million coho arrived at the mouth of the Columbia River, the most in a quarter-century. This fall, more than 500,000 adult steelhead trout are expected to pass by Bonneville Dam, the highest count ever recorded since the dam was built in 1938.

Normally, the Salmon, Clearwater and Snake rivers in Idaho are closed to chinook fishing. Any surplus fish are caught for their eggs to bolster hatchery production. But this year, with more than 185,000 chinook headed for Idaho, the state Department of Fish and Game opened the most liberal salmon-fishing season in 30 years, allowing people to catch up to four fish a day, and 40 for the season.

Thane Barrie, a die-hard Boise angler, took full advantage of the rare chinook season. "Oh, it was phenomenal," he says. "We had one day where we hooked 51 fish on the Little Salmon River and the Salmon River."

Barrie says he would have caught his limit, but he ran out of room in his freezer.

Experts say the high runs are due to a collision of ideal factors.

In the spring of 1999, deep snowpack in the mountains of the Pacific Northwest turned into raging melt water in rivers and streams, sweeping juvenile fish much faster than normal through a series of eight dams on the Snake and Columbia rivers to the sea. All that excess water exceeded the powerhouse capacity of the dams, forcing the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to release surplus water over spillways. That meant more fish bypassed the dams in spillways, and fewer fish were barged to the sea, increasing survival, says Steve Pettit, fish biologist for the Idaho Department of Fish and Game in Lewiston.

There, at the mouth of the Columbia, as the young fish made their magical transformation into a saltwater creature, a tremendous influx of nutrients, microorganisms and other food sources emerged from the depths of the ocean for the fish to eat. Ocean conditions changed in the Pacific in the late 1990s, due to an "upwelling" of current-swept nutrients and small organisms, from the floor of the deep ocean to shallow water off the Oregon and Washington coast. Chinook and coho salmon, and steelhead (ocean-going rainbow trout) gorged on the uncommonly abundant food supplies as they made a two-year circuit in the North Pacific.

"We've not only had good migration conditions, we had a complete turnaround in ocean conditions," says Pettit.

'A blessing'

While the majority of the record chinook, coho and steelhead runs are hatchery-reared fish, wild fish also survived in larger numbers than usual. That's good news for environmentalists and tribes who have been waging the salmon wars to prevent wild chinook and steelhead from becoming extinct (HCN, 12/20/00: Still here).

"It's been a blessing," says Charles Hudson of the Columbia River Intertribal Fish Commission. "We've talked for many years about a salmon economy, and this year we got to put a face to the name."

In rural communities from Astoria, Ore. to Riggins, Idaho, "anglers were like a swarm of locusts descending on all of these small communities along the river," Hamilton says. "In Idaho, I heard tackle shops were out of gear four hours away from the Salmon River."

These big runs will buy wild chinook and steelhead more time while political debates rage on how to improve migration conditions in the dam-studded corridor between Portland and Lewiston, Idaho. Despite the great year, fish scientists say the future looks bleak. This year, one of the driest years on record in the Pacific Northwest, more than 95 percent of the juvenile fish were barged to the sea. The Bonneville Power Administration was under pressure to produce as much electricity as possible, and the fish got last priority (HCN, 6/18/01: Transforming powers).

"It was a best-of-times, worst-of-times kind of year," Hudson says. "The main-stem river was particularly deadly and hostile to fish this year, and in a couple years, we'll see the results of that in low numbers of adult fish."

 

Steve Stuebner writes from Boise, Idaho.

Copyright © 2001 HCN and Steve Stuebner