Adam Spencer, The Triplicate

Epic forecastfor fall run onKlamath River

The largest projected return of fall-run chinook salmon since 1978 is looming over the Klamath River.

Fishery managers project that roughly 380,000 adult chinook salmon will migrate up the Klamath this fall to spawn - three times the estimated run of 2011 adult chinook and 50 percent greater than the highest run on record (245,242 total fish in 1995).

Starting Wednesday, sport fishermen will be allowed to keep four adult chinooks per day, with a possession limit of eight adult chinooks.

The abundant forecast is a boon for sport anglers, tribal fishermen and the guides, hotels and restaurants that benefit from tourism dollars.

"I think it's going to be the best season I've ever seen," said fishing guide Gary Hix, who has already booked up much of his season on the Klamath.

"We haven't had a four-fish quota since the quota era started," said Wade Sinnen, senior environmental scientist with the California Department of Fish and Game.

Sinnen said it was a "tough sell" to convince the California Fish and Game Commission to adopt the four-fish limit, but the projections warrant it. "Even with a four-fish adult bag, it's very unlikely we will obtain our quota," he said. "This is a test year to evaluate the capacity of the sport fishery."

It's important to get as close as possible to the sport-fishing quota of 67,600chinooks, because conditions are ripe for another event like the 2002 fish kill when tens of thousands of salmon died from diseases before spawning - partly due to more fish than usual.

An estimated 34,000 to 78,000 salmon died primarily from a gill-rotting disease known as "ich" (Ichthyopthirius multifilis).

"I was out there counting those dead fish; it was a smelly, disgusting mess - it was sad really," Sinnen said. "People are nervous this year that the same thing could occur due to the record forecast of salmon and dry to average water conditions in the Klamath basin."

To prevent a repeat fish kill, the Bureau of Reclamation started releasing additional water from the Lewiston Dam on the Trinity River to keep the flow of the lower Klamath River at 3,200 cubic feet per second throughout the peak of the fall run.

Mike Belchik, senior fisheries biologist for the Yurok Tribe, presented a case for higher flows for the fall-run chinook to the multi-agency Trinity River Fall Flows Workgroup, which was well received.

Maintaining a minimum flow of 2,800 cfs for an above-average run had already been established, but this run's bigger than that.

Belchik emphasized to the group that excellent salmon fishing on the ocean provided reason to trust the predictions, and "in order to decrease the odds of fish kill happening we would like to increase the flow from 2,800 to 3,200," he said.

The increased flow prevents the ich pathogen from attaching to another host fish, and ich can only survive for about two days when it is not in a fish, Belchik said.

The Yurok Tribe is taking another precautionary measure to catch ich early if it shows up. Starting Monday, fisheries biologists are catching roughly 30 salmon a day near Blue Creek and inspecting their gills for ich.

"We're pretty confident that this project will detect any presences of ich," Belchik said. "We'll know far sooner than when any bodies show up."

If signs of ich appear, the Bureau of Reclamation has committed an emergency release of water to raise the flow to 6,000 cfs, hopefully flushing the pathogens out to sea, where they can't survive.

Presence of ich would activate the multi-agency Klamath Fish Health Assessment Team, creating an incident command center as well as the Yurok Tribe's emergency response team. Jet boats, equipment and efficient lines of communication are prepared in case.

"We will able to collect data and respond to a fish kill in a much more organized way than in 2002 when we were caught flat-footed, because - to be fair - nothing like that had every happened before," Belchik said.

Strong pressure from sport anglers could also help prevent a fish kill, creating more space for fish in the river.With a four-fish daily limit and eight-fish possession limit, sport anglers can get more salmon than their freezers can handle while doing their part to maintain the fishery.

If large numbers of dead salmon are seen,call CALTIP at 1-888-334-2258.

Reach Adam Spencer at