In search of some fresh salmon for my own “home-pack” after a mediocre day of fishing with my clients, I’m one of 4 boats on the lower Columbia River in what is traditionally the killing fields for chinook during the morning hours of our peak season. After all, I too have family and friends to feed; the need for a farewell barbeque in my home town of Bay City, Oregon as I migrate to the big city in hopes for better opportunities for me and my family. I’m transitioning from a full-time fishing guide to a part timer, now working for a great non-profit (The Association of Northwest Steelheaders) that helps conserve fish and recruit new anglers to our passion.
It’s a rare scene, to have the river to myself and my fish finder lit up with scores of black arches for what should be an easy score; a nice “upriver bright” chinook for the community that has given so much to us the last 2 decades. This shouldn’t take long…….
Well, as it turns out, it never happens! 2 good passes before sunrise and never a sniff. Really? I’m a fishing guide, this should be slam dunk! I turn to the port in disappointment.
But I always say, if you look hard enough, you can always learn something from your time on the water. Without clients to tell stories to, or hear jokes from, I have time to ponder. As I look to the sun setting on the horizon, I can’t help to again think about what this place was like pre-European settlement. What would fishing be like with today’s equipment, just 150 years ago?
The Astoria/Megler Bridge at sunset on the lower Columbia River, August 17th, 2015
I have to do the quick math, but actually, it’s not challenging at all. If it takes 8 hours to catch 12 fish for my customers, with a return of about 1.2 million salmon this year, with most of them being the less aggressive hatchery fish, how long would it have taken me a century ago when we had closer to 16 million salmon returning, all of them being a more aggressive wild variety? Yeah, that’s what I’m saying….
It still feels pretty wild out here however. I’m alone in my boat, pioneering Blind Channel with few other distractions on my plate. I’m protected by Megler Point so the Northwest wind isn’t bothering me, no other customers to take care of, it’s all a matter of luck from here. Baitfish are jumping everywhere, theoretically because salmon are chasing them to the surface, seals and sea lions are hunting these waters and we even saw a gray whale downriver just a bit earlier in the morning. There’s only an occasional car crossing the Astoria/Megler Bridge, ready to settle down for the night. There really is no better time to be on the water.
The bigger question I keep asking myself, almost to the point of not wanting the answer anymore, how did we get in this predicament in the first place? Now in reality, it’s pretty hard to feel bad with a limit of coho and chinook on board and a group of satisfied customers but knowing that in the years ahead, and likely in the very near future, we’re going to fall on tough times on this river. The Columbia has produced astounding numbers of returning adults the last 3 seasons yet we still have 13 runs of salmonids listed under the ESA (https://www.nwcouncil.org/history/EndangeredSpeciesAct)?
Lethally warm water temperatures in their freshwater ecosystems coupled with a warm water blob (http://www.nwfsc.noaa.gov/news/features/food_chain/index.cfm) in the Pacific Ocean will spell trouble for returning adults in the years to come. I’ve already written about predation in a previous blog and have been asked by reporters about my thoughts on predation control. If we had a properly functioning ecosystem however, there would be enough fish for everybody.
I’m sure in subsequent blog posts, you’ll hear me talk about Ecosystem Based Management or EBM. I think just by its name, you can guess what its premise is. It’s a hands-off approach to management or really, no management at all. Although anglers haven’t fully embraced the idea of ecosystem based management, we’re getting it on some different levels. Protecting our forage prey base, riparian plantings and carcass tosses are just some examples of how we work to improve our ecosystem services and frankly, EBM is too big a concept for a fish (salmon) that have such large home ranges.
I’ll keep daydreaming however, about what it would have been like to troll a herring through a school of 16 million salmon in August on the lower Columbia, say 150 years ago. Not only would we have our limit in 20 minutes, but we’d be throwing back any fish under 35 pounds. It’s important to realize the footprint we’ve had on our natural world in just the last 100 years. Yeah, we’ll celebrate our fresh salmon barbeques and brag about the fish that got away but realize this, we’re now at a stage in our history where we know what causes the decline of salmon and we’re all to blame for it. What will you do today to make sure we don’t collectively put the nail in the coffin of this iconic species?