Sherry Klassen and her husband Tim Klassen, the captain of Reel Steel Fishing Charters, have lived in Humboldt County their whole lives. Both say they have never seen such an incredible fishing season.
”The salmon runs have been phenomenal this year,” Sherry Klassen said. “We have never witnessed a season like this before. Everyone is talking about it. It is huge.”
Chuck Tracy, a Pacific Fishery Management Council salmon staff officer, said the numbers are impressive but not too surprising.
The council, which oversees the salmon fisheries in Washington, Oregon and California, released pre-season estimates last March that predicted record returns of chinook salmon from the Klamath River for the 2012 season.
Nearly 1.6 million chinook salmon -- easily the largest of the salmon species -- from the Klamath River are expected to be in the ocean this fall. Of those, 380,000 are expected to make their way into and up the Klamath River to spawn, said Sarah Borok, an environmental scientist with the California Department of Fish and Game.
Both of those numbers are a relief for the fishing industries in Northern California, where poor stock returns have beleaguered commercial fishermen and meant the shortening and closure of recent fishing seasons.
”This weekend it really went gangbusters on the Klamath,” Borok said. “We had over 200 guys fishing at the mouth. We are excited to hear about these numbers coming in.”
Both Borok and Tracy said there are likely several reasons for the turnaround, with favorable ocean and river conditions being the two most important factors.
Juvenile chinook salmon migrate out of the Klamath and into the ocean in the spring before they are even a year old, Tracy explained. The fish remain in the ocean anywhere from two to five years before returning to spawn in the fall. That is a lot of time for things to go wrong, he said.
Cold water, abundant plankton and low predator numbers are just a few of the requirements juvenile salmon must find when they hit the ocean to produce good returns in following years.
”These were a lucky bunch of fish,” Tracy said.
The stress of the season is not over yet. Borok said large returns bring their own set of problems. The high numbers have many fisheries experts remembering back to 2002, when large returns resulted in a massive fish kill.
More than 250,000 chinook salmon died before spawning that year, Borok said.
”It was kind of like a double-whammy. We had large run sizes, reduced water flow and then this pathogen called Ich came in. It was kind of like the nail in the coffin that season.”
Borok said experts are better prepared for the large returns this season.
Multiple agencies that work along the river have joined together to create the Klamath Fish Health Assessment Team, she said. The team is watching closely for any signs of a possible fish kill.
”Back in 2002, we had all the warning signs, we just didn't know what we were looking for,” she said. “Now we do.”
The Bureau of Reclamation began releasing additional water on Aug. 15 from the Trinity River reservoir to supplement flows in the lower Klamath River. Borok said the release has the water flowing at about 3,200 cubic feet per second. In 2002, when the fish kill occurred, the water was flowing at 1,800 cubic feet per second. Borok said fast water flows give the fish more room to avoid what she calls, “Kindergarten Syndrome.”
”When the water is running too slow, the fish will bunch in close together,” she said. “That is bad because if one of them is sick it increases the odds of them all getting sick.”
While this year's salmon returns are impressive, Tracy said they do not say anything about how next season's numbers will look.
”This particular brood got some good conditions and have responded well. But if the weather changes, if it gets warmer -- who knows what next year will look like,” he said.
Sherry Klassen said regardless of what next year brings, she and her husband will enjoy this year's bountiful run while they can.
”Everyone is having a wonderful season right now,” she said. “When the salmon are abundant, it's good for the area, it's good for the economy. There are smiles all around.”
Kaci Poor can be reached at 441-0504 or firstname.lastname@example.org.