Starting Saturday, Sept. 24, anglers will be able to harvest coho salmon in the Grande Ronde River for the third time since they were reintroduced in 2017.
Coho returns to the Snake River basin have increased over the last three years with the 2021 return being the highest ever.
“The 2022 return is looking to be similar to last year,” said Kyle Bratcher, Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife District Fish Biologist. “We’re excited that more folks are taking an interest in this fishery and that we can provide this opportunity.”
The Grande Ronde River is a tributary of the Snake River, 182 miles long, in northeastern Oregon and southeastern Washington in the United States. It drains an area southeast of the Blue Mountains and northwest of the Wallowa Mountains.
Coho salmon were reintroduced to provide for harvest in both treaty and non-treaty fisheries and to restore ecological function lost in their absence. Coho were extirpated in the early 1900s with multiple reintroduction efforts attempted up until the 1970s. Current pilot reintroduction efforts are aimed at assessing the success of reintroduction, using a lower Columbia River stock, prior to potential development of a localized hatchery stock.
While the fishery is opening on Sept. 24, there likely will not be a lot of fish in the Grande Ronde River for another week or two. Coho are just starting to cross the Lower Granite Dam and need time to make their way upriver to the Oregon section. During the past two years, catch rates have been very low with anglers primarily targeting steelhead and catching an occasional coho.
“I suspect that because anglers are focused on steelhead, we haven’t seen great fishing for coho,” said Bratcher. “I do think that once anglers start targeting them and figure out their habits, we’ll see catch rates increase.”
This year’s fishery has been extended to include the roadless section from the Wildcat Bridge up to the mouth of the Wallowa River. With two years of fisheries in the books, managers can lean on lessons learned and have extended the fishery knowing it presents a very low risk of over harvest.
In addition to a strong coho return, Bratcher says that fall Chinook salmon and bull trout are also encountered on an annual basis during the Grande Ronde steelhead fishery. “Having the diversity on the Grande Ronde is great and makes for a more interesting time on the water,” said Bratcher. “Anglers should brush up on species identification to stay out of trouble when harvesting steelhead and coho.”
Historically about one million coho salmon returned annually to the Columbia River and were abundant throughout the upper Columbia River and Snake River watersheds. By the 1980s, the fish were gone from the basin interior – extirpated. But today, in several rivers above Bonneville Dam, the coho are back.
Columbia River treaty tribes, despite resistance from others in the early days, were determined to return functionally extinct coho to interior basin waters as they worked to increase return numbers for struggling chinook, sockeye and steelhead. States and Tribes are now working together to bring back coho to interior rivers.
By 1987 no coho were counted at Lower Granite. They wouldn’t be seen again until the first adults from the Nez Perce Tribe’s Clearwater River reintroduction came back from the ocean in 1997.
Coho were extirpated from the Grande Ronde Basin as early as 1912 due to misguided fish culture practices, excessive harvest and habitat modifications.
The combination of recent investments in habitat improvements on private lands, stronger relationships among fishery co-managers, and improvements in fish culture and monitoring provide the NPT and ODFW confidence that current efforts will result in a successful reintroduction.
The regulations for the coho fishery on the Grande Ronde River will be as follows:
Dates Open: Sept. 24 through Nov. 30, 2022, or until further notice.
Open Area: The Grande Ronde River from the Oregon-Washington border upstream to the Wallowa River confluence.
Bag Limits: For adult coho salmon (>20 inches) the bag limit will be two (2). For Jack coho salmon (≤ 20 inches) the bag limit will be five (5) with two daily limits in possession.
–CBB, Oct. 1, 2020, GRANDE RONDE RIVER OPENS FOR COHO HARVEST FIRST TIME IN 40 YEARS; 3,000 LOSTINE RIVER COHO (RE-INTRODUCED) MAY PASS LOWER GRANITE https://cbbulletin.com/grande-ronde-river-opens-for-coho-harvest-first-time-in-40-years-3000-lostine-river-coho-re-introduced-may-pass-lower-granite/
–CBB, Nov. 20, 2020, COHO REINTRODUCTION BOOSTED BY RECORD NUMBERS HEADED FOR OREGON’S GRANDE RONDE, LOSTINE RIVER; SUPPORTS TRIBAL, SPORT FISHERIES https://cbbulletin.com/coho-reintroduction-boosted-by-record-numbers-headed-for-oregons-grande-ronde-lostine-river-supports-tribal-sport-fisheries/