Fall salmon

This fall chinook salmon was caught by trolling a Superbait in the Columbia River on Sept. 8, 2014.

LEWISTON — Fall chinook and coho bound for the Snake River and beyond continue to give anglers and fisheries managers reason for optimism in an otherwise disappointing late summer and fall.

The two runs look like they will exceed preseason forecasts. This is happening at the same time steelhead, once the most reliable anadromous fish run in the Snake River Basin, continue to falter badly.

Through Sept. 19, more than 26,903 fall chinook had been counted at Lower Granite Dam on the Snake River. That is just more than the 25,000 fisheries managers predicted would return through the entire season.

The run is past its peak but has a few weeks to go.

“This year’s run is several weeks early,” said Becky Johnson, production director of the Nez Perce Tribe’s Department of Fisheries Resources Management. “We might be 80% of the way there at Granite.”

Johnson said the run could end up somewhere between 30,000 and 32,000 fish before it’s over.

Years ago, the tribe lobbied for the Snake River fall chinook hatchery program to expand above Lower Granite Dam and has led the way raising and releasing fish in the Clearwater, Snake and Salmon rivers.

The tribe is also responsible for the coho salmon fishery. Coho were declared functionally extinct in the 1980s.

In the 1990s, the tribe started an effort to establish the run.

Fishing was allowed for the first time in 2014 when more than 18,000 returned over Lower Granite Dam. That remains the high mark, but it could fall this year.

Johnson said a preseason forecast called for a return of 13,000 coho, but based on detections of tagged fish at Bonneville Dam, the run could be between 16,000 and 19,000.

“We are pretty excited to see that,” she said.

The 2021 steelhead run continues to be on pace to be the worst recorded dating back to 1938 when Bonneville Dam was completed and annual counts began.

Through Sunday, 61,221 steelhead were counted at the dam. The 10-year average is 175,100.

The return of fish to the Snake River is low, but not on pace to be the worst on record.

Through Sunday, nearly 16,000 steelhead had been counted there. The 10-year average is about 37,000.

But it is well above recent low counts through Sept. 22 of about 8,000 to 12,000 steelhead recorded in 2017 and 2019.

Last week, a group of state, tribal and federal fisheries managers updated the official steelhead forecast to 63,600 at Bonneville Dam. The forecast calls for 53,500 A-run fish, including 33,300 hatchery steelhead and 20,200 wild fish.

They expect 10,100 B-run steelhead to make it at least as far as Bonneville Dam. That includes 8,400 hatchery steelhead and 1,700 wild fish.

The update downgraded the A-run forecast but boosted that of the B-run. The preseason forecast predicted a return of 89,200 A-run and 7,600 B-run steelhead to Bonneville Dam.

Dave Johnson, director of the Nez Perce Tribe’s Department of Fisheries Resources Management, noted steelhead use a different part of the ocean than fall chinook and coho and likely experience worse conditions.

Coho and fall chinook stick closer to the coast of North America. Steelhead head “straight out in the ocean and across the Pacific,” Johnson said.

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