Pacific North West Coho Populations Are Rebounding
All along the coast, an abundance of Coho are returning to rivers to spawn. The return predicted for the Columbia River was originally projected at 638,000 fish, but biologists now say it will reach a million before the season is over. Bill Monroe reported in the Oregonian that while coho were being caught in the estuary in the beginning of November, thousands continued to pass through Bonneville Dam each day. In spite of most quota systems in Oregon being replaced with annual limits, similar reports of wild fish on the Siuslaw and Alsea rivers are being caught in good numbers both in the estuaries and upriver late in the season. The North Fork Nehalem reported record returns, and a surprisingly good return of wild coho have appeared in the Kilchis, in spite of only 400 returning to 5 different rivers in the area a decade ago. The Trask River even opened new water to fishing for salmon near their hatchery due to the high returns and Big Creek opened it’s season early due to an excess of broodstock fish returning early.
ODFW’s fish counting station at Willamette Falls has had some of the highest counts in nearly 20 years, making this year’s return one of the top 3 in the history of it’s records, which began in 1946. The previous high was near 18,000 returning fish, but that was in 1971 when millions of smolts were being released to support commercial fisheries. That practice ended in 1998 due to concerns about interaction with chinook and steelhead listed under the Endangered Species Act. Coho are not a native species to the Willamette Basin, but have naturalized a run mostly comprised of the progeny of those past hatchery fish and some that may have strayed from the Clackamas River. Tom Murtagh, district fish biologist for ODFW’s North Willamette Watershed was quoted in an interview in the Columbia Basin Bulletin as saying
“It’s phenomenal, they are doing really well as a population.”
Murtagh said he expects angling for these fish will be best in the mainstem Willamette, around the mouths of the Tualatin, Yamhill, Santiam and Molalla rivers. As the season continues to progress they can be expected to be found upstream and in tributaries to those rivers.
Even Crystal Springs Creek in Southeast Portland gained media attention after receiving it’s first unexpected returns in recent years after extensive watershed restoration projects. Good news for visitors of Westmoreland Park that will benefit from new features of a nature playground for families and a raised walkway above a restored wetland that is a popular walk.
Perhaps even most impressive of the extent of returning fall Coho are the appearance of large numbers of fish reaching the Clearwater River in Idaho. Runs determined to be extinct due to the building of dams have been restored by broodstock from the Columbia that have been replaced with it’s own broodstock of returning fish to the Nez Perce tribal hatchery. The operation first opposed by state officials due to a fear of introducing diseases from the Columbia River broodstock has now given it’s blessing to the state to open a sport fishing season for it’s returning hatchery fish. Idaho Fish and Game director Virgil Moore was quoted in the Idaho Statesman as saying
“I give the tribe huge credit for being persistent and picking up this coho program and making it successful.”
The day after the season opened, angler Ethan Crawford caught a state record 9.4 pound Coho, prompting a discussion for Idaho Fish and Game to separate sea-run and freshwater Coho into two categories, as the previous record was a fish from the Cascade Reservoir that spent it’s entire life in freshwater. Joe DuPont, regional fisheries manager for the Idaho Department of Fish and Game in Lewiston claims there are likely larger fish being caught, but people are not focused on obtaining the proper documentation, instead harvesting the fish and taking them home for dinner. The race to break the current record continues.
Regardless of location, Coho are making a great comeback to the Pacific Northwest. A combination of wild, naturalized and hatchery salmon are providing anglers with greater opportunities for fisheries with catch and release or outstanding table fare.