LYLE — After record-high temperatures and drought decimated summer fisheries, Ervin Leslie only hopes that fish biologists are on the mark in forecasting the fall chinook run now underway as the fifth-largest in recent history.
More than 925,000 fall chinook are expected to return to the Columbia River. The largest run number of 1,175,700 was in 1941.
But that’s not the only bounty in the forecast. Other healthy runs anticipated include about 200,000 coho and a summer steelhead run estimated to reach about 300,000 by the time it ends later this month.
“All summer long was rough on everybody that was out here,” Leslie said, overlooking the river one recent afternoon. “So the next three weeks, if we have a good fish count, maybe we can make up what we lost this summer.”
Fishers are hopeful that the summer’s low flows and hot weather, coupled with climate change concerns, won’t become an annual event. But most concede the probability is high.
Columbia River fish provide a livelihood for tribal and nontribal commercial fishers, as well as fish for cultural purposes for four tribes — Yakama, Nez Perce, Umatilla and Warm Springs. Record-high temperatures in early summer also are believed to have caused the deaths of about 80 sturgeon found belly-up on a stretch of river between the Bonneville and McNary dams. Sturgeon fishing was shut down as a result.
Pointing to where the Klickitat River pours into the Columbia, Leslie, a 73-year-old Yakama commercial fisherman, described the absence of fish in the Klickitat all summer.
“(On) the Klickitat, there were no fish up there to be heard of,” he said. “We didn’t know if they got lost or what. I’ve been here 52 years and I’ve never seen it like this. Especially the Klickitat — I’ve fished there since I was 9.”
Commercial fish buyers wouldn’t bother setting fish prices due to the small catch, Leslie said. And fish that were caught were no good because of the unusually warm water.
“Soft fish — they were falling apart in peoples’ hands,” he said.
Leslie’s son, Darrell, said he shared some of his earnings from logging in the Yakima Valley with his dad.
“I know he didn’t catch much,” Darrell Leslie said. “I had to give him some money — him and my mom.”
Fish biologists are reassuring fishers that they stand a good chance of recouping some of their loss during the fall run. River temperatures are cooling, and fall chinook runs have been consistently plentiful the past several years, with 1,159,100 returning last year and 1,268,400 in 2013.
On this recent afternoon, Leslie began to see the bounty. His son and two other men cleared enough fish from their gill net to fill a large tote, and motored their boat back to shore.
“This week, it’s starting to get better,” Darrell Leslie said. “That’s the first tote we’ve filled so far.”
It takes roughly 70 fish to fill a tote, and that’s much more than the four or five fish that were being caught at one point during the summer, his dad said.
“We’re usually catching a tote at a time out there (with a gill net),” he said.
On the nearby Klickitat, fishers were excited to tap the fall run. They stood on scaffolds attached to jagged cliffs, dipping handheld nets into the crashing river funneling through the basalt canyon.
Within 20 minutes, one had plucked two chinook.
Lower river flows and increased water temperatures are punctuating the need to continue ongoing efforts to improve habitat, said Stuart Ellis, harvest management biologist with the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission.
Fish stand a better chance in a river that has healthy habitat during a drought.
“Really do what we can to make the quality and quantity of our salmon habitat as good as we can because that will help us do better in poorer climate,” he said.
River temperatures in the Columbia in July rose as high as 72 degrees for several days, well above the 65- to 68-degree range that’s ideal for salmon.
“Part of the reason the river got so warm in July is the extreme temperatures for long periods of time,” he said. “We were getting daytime temperatures over 100, dipping only to the mid-80s overnight. That just doesn’t give opportunity for the streams to cool off.”
Low snowpack in the mountains didn’t help, “so we had rivers running lower than normal and not being fed by snowpack,” he said.
Leslie noticed the low flows, adding that a nearby sandbar was exposed more than usual all summer.
“This is the worst drought we had in a long time,” he said. “We had a drought about nine years ago, but it wasn’t anything like this.”
Warm temperatures drove many sickened sockeye into the Deschutes River, just east of The Dalles, Ore., Ellis said. Those fish headed for the Okanogan and Wenatchee rivers were sickened with columnaris, a bacterial infection typically associated with high water temperatures and low levels of dissolved oxygen.
“Many may not have survived,” Ellis said of the expected 394,000 sockeye run. “We can say pretty confidently that there will be a significant impact on sockeye, but we won’t know exactly until we have all the data.”
That date isn’t available until December, when all the spawning and catch data is released.
“Everybody is going to be watching these runs and people are going to be concerned,” Ellis said. “Everyone knows that salmon runs are cyclical — they go up and down. But people are concerned if we get several years of low snowpack, low stream flows, that can really aggravate any kind of down-cycle in salmon.”