Merle Shuyler, left, and Greg Wilson of Selah are shown with their limits of

coho salmon caught at the mouth of the Klickitat River a couple years ago. The early forecast for coho returning to the Columbia River this fall is

900,000 fish, which is a huge jump over the past two years. (Photo courtesy of Rob Phillips).

YAKIMA, Wash. -- Fishing for spring chinook salmon is one of the real privileges of living here in the Northwest. At least it is for many anglers.

It is hard to get too fired up about fishing for salmon right now, as we look out at a sea of white snow, but when you look at the calendar it won’t be long before we can be out there after what many consider the very best eating salmon around.

Then, when you hear that at least two spring chinook salmon have already been caught down around the Portland area, in the Columbia and Willamette rivers, it gets more real.

According to a post by Oregonian writer Bill Monroe, the first spring chinook salmon catch of the year has been confirmed, from the lower Willamette River by Dave Frey of Lake Oswego. The fish was caught on Jan. 29th.

Monroe reports that Frey caught the bright 16-pound hatchery salmon using a red prawn.

Reports of a second springer popped up on Facebook last week, but because it is not as big a deal as the first fish caught of the year, the particulars are not as readily available. Suffice it to say, that as we get into March, more springers will be caught by anglers who are anxious to get out there after them.

For most of us on the eastern side of the Cascades, it will be a few more weeks before we really need to get excited about getting out there.

As for how many fish we will have coming our way it has been announced that some 157,500 spring chinook salmon will be heading up the Columbia to tributaries above Bonneville Dam. That number is about 20,000 below the actual number of springers that came back into the Columbia last spring.

While some Central Washington anglers make the journey down below Bonneville and fish for spring chinook, most await their arrival to the Wind River, Drano Lake, the Klickitat River and the Yakima River.

The predicted number of salmon to return to the Wind and Drano are down from last year’s return. This year only 2,800 fish are predicted to return to the Wind. The Drano forecast is for 5,600 chinook returning to the popular fishing spot. The 2019 forecast for the Klickitat River is 1,100.

Predicting the run returns are extremely difficult and have been overestimated the last few years. Let’s hope this year the fish return in higher numbers than predicted.

Speaking of salmon return numbers, the first forecasts for fall chinook and coho salmon on the Columbia River were just released.

While the number for fall upriver brights is not great, the early predictions for coho salmon look excellent. Based on the Oregon Prediction Index, a workgroup with contributors from the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, NOAA Fisheries and the U.S. Oregon Technical Advisory Committee, 900,000 coho may be returning to the Columbia River this fall.

That is well above the 10-year average, which is 416,000 and is much better than the actual return of 147,300 coho last year.

The forecast for upriver brights, the unique run of wild chinook that return to the upper Columbia in the fall, is 158,400. That compares to the actual return last year of 149,000.

While not a great forecast, certainly when you consider not too long ago there were 600,000 fall chinook or more returning to the upper Columbia each year, many guides and anglers still had some excellent fishing last year and are looking forward to another good season this fall.

The overall return of fall salmon to the Columbia, including lower river chinook, is predicted to be slightly better than last year, but still is way below the 10-year average. Several years of poor ocean conditions and the too-warm river conditions of a few years ago have likely contributed to the low run numbers recently.

The uptick in coho salmon is definitely a bright spot and may be an indicator that things have turned around and the runs in the next few years may improve.

There is still no forecast for summer steelhead run numbers, but early indicators are the run this year will not be great. Seasons will be set after the run numbers are established, but there are likely to be restrictions to sport fishing in some areas again this year, possibly including the closing of night fishing in some popular steelhead fishing spots, along with other changes to help protect wild fish.

Final fall salmon run forecasts will be available in mid-April.

Spring salmon fishing seasons should be set soon, but also look for some limited seasons and catch limits, especially in the lower Columbia, to help protect some runs that are not doing well on the Kalama and Cowlitz Rivers.

Looking out at the arctic panorama that is Central Washington right now, it is hard to think that spring salmon fishing is not too far off. But it will be here soon, and hopefully with the arrival of spring, so too will come the coveted chinook salmon.

Rob Phillips is an award-winning freelance outdoor writer who has written the Northwest Sportsman column for over 25 years. He can be reached at rob1@spdandg.com