An Upstream Journey: Dispatch #3, the Salmon of the Columbia River


Written by: Phil Monahan

Bob Rees displays a hatchery salmon that is a sad replacement for the wild fish that once swarmed up the Columbia River. (All photos by Paul Moinester.)

[Editor's Note: Paul Moinester has embarked on a six-month, 20,000-mile adventure to exploring the upstream battle to protect wild fish and their habitat. (Check out his introductory post here.) He will be posting dispatches on the Fly Fishing blog throughout his journey.]

As the rain pelted down and the boat raucously shook in the choppy Columbia River, young Cole weathered the elements and fought the spring-run Chinook salmon tooth and nail. With Cole’s rod doubled over and the salmon thrashing right below the river’s grey surface, Bob dropped his net into the water and pulled up a chrome-colored salmon fresh from the Pacific.

I had come to Tillamook on the Oregon coast to fish the tail end of the winter steelhead run. My host in Tillamook was Bob Rees, a longtime fishing guide and avid conservationist. Bob regularly travels to Salem and Washington DC to advocate on behalf of wild fish protection, and I had connected with him during his last trip to the District.

Bob was instrumental in helping me focus my trip and challenged me to tackle the truly important issues threatening wild fish populations. So on day two when the opportunity arose to spend the day with Bob fishing on the Columbia River, I gladly stowed my fly rod and picked up a spinning rod for the first time this trip.

Dams throughout the Columbia watershed cut off salmon from their spawning grounds.

The Columbia and Snake River Basin was once home to one of the largest salmon runs in the world. Conservative estimates peg the annual return at somewhere between 15 and 17 million salmon, with some estimates as high as 30 million per year. But after decades of overfishing and a series of dams erected on the Snake (the largest tributary to the Columbia) and Columbia Rivers, the number of returning salmon to the basin has plummeted. The annual run now stands at a dismal 1.5 million fish, approximately 75 percent of which are stocked hatchery fish.

Driving through the Pacific Northwest, you quickly gain an appreciation of how integrated salmon are in the cultural fabric. Salmon-inspired art graces city streets, salmon are pictured on many Oregon license plates, and you can hardly turn a corner without running into Salmon Street or Coho Lane. But nowadays this connection is far more spiritual than it is economic.

As Bob told me in the early morning darkness on our drive up to the Columbia, the Oregon coast was built on the backs of salmon. The craggy shore was once dotted with canneries as far as the eye could see. These canneries caught as much salmon as they could, canned it, and shipped it to dinner tables across the United States. Decades of overharvesting crippled the salmon population. And the onslaught of dams erected on the Snake and Columbia during the ’30s and ’40s were described to me as “a series of nails in the salmon coffin.”

When the salmon population disappeared up and down the coast, these towns were forced to either reinvent themselves or go belly up.  Eighty years later, there is still a segment of Oregon’s coastal economy that is reliant on salmon, but it is a fraction of what it once was. A small but steadfast group of commercial fisherman still prowl these rough waters. And a handful of guides like Bob still rely on the thrill of catching salmon and the possibility of a fresh slab for dinner to draw tourists to these waters.

Bob Rees spends as much time working toward salmon restoration as he does fishing.

Despite the precipitous decline in the Pacific Northwest salmon population, there is still hope for the return of these majestic creatures. The region is home to a sizable number of conservation organizations such as Save Our Wild Salmon and dedicated individuals working around the clock to support and bolster the fledgling wild salmon population.

Bob Rees is one of these dedicated individuals. He makes his living guiding on Oregon’s beautiful coastal rivers, helping individuals fulfill their dreams of catching salmon and steelhead. But Bob probably spends more time volunteering for conservation organizations throughout the Northwest than he does guiding. What drives Bob is a profound respect for these fish and a deep-seated belief that we are all responsible for rectifying the environmental devastation wrought on these spectacular creatures.

According to Bob, the day we spent on the Columbia with four of his clients trolling for spring Chinook was about average these days. We had seven lines in the water for roughly 10 hours, and we had three bites and landed two fish–both of which were hatchery salmon. I did my best to manipulate my spinning rod so that my bait was properly presented to the fish, but it hardly budged all day, save for it slightly shaking in the chop and wind.

On the way back to Bob’s house after our day on the water, we made a quick stop at Costco to pick up a few items for a party. As we passed the fish aisle, my eye caught a display of salmon that prominently displayed the sign “Fresh Farm-Raised Atlantic Salmon – $7.99 a lb.” Having just spent the day in the cold and rain fishing in what was once one of the most prosperous salmon regions in the world, that sign felt like a nauseating affront to the proud culture and history of this region.

A long day of trolling produced just two fish in the net.

With a little more forethought and self-control, enough wild salmon could exist within the Columbia River basin to feed the entire region and beyond. And that is what Bob, Save Our Wild Salmon, and their partner organizations are working towards: a day when the Columbia River and its tributaries are so chock-full of salmon that purchasing farm-raised Atlantic salmon in Oregon would be considered an act of lunacy.

For more information on the work being done to restore wild salmon populations to the Columbia and Snake River Basin, please visit the Save Our Wild Salmon website.

 

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