Of Sockeye and Brandon; Of Yakamas and Salmon

During last Saturday’s classes of ’58 through ’62 Eastmont High reunion picnic on Lake Chelan—in the middle of a reverie on dozens of such picnics as a kid—Brandon Rogers called.

“Jim,” he said, “I’m fishing sockeye on Lake Wenatchee, and could stand some company tomorrow morning.  Wanna come fishing?”  Brandon is a sockeye nut.  He had just shifted his focus from chasing the sockeye returning to Baker Lake to the just opened fishery at Lake Wenatchee.  One of the things about sockeye fishing, of course, is that wherever you pursue them, the scenery is spectacular—and there are fish.  Arm twisted, I said, “Sure.”

By 5:08 Sunday morning, we were heading up the lake.  Within minutes, we had a nice salmon in the net.  Soon after that, we managed the first double of the times we’ve fished sockeye on Lake Wenatchee.  By 5:50, we were finished fishing for the day.  We cleaned our fish and settled the boat down, then drove down to the Squirrel Tree Restaurant to wait for the opening bell.

I’ve known Brandon, and wife Margo, since they were geography students at Central.  They were always (probably still are) about one breath away from bolting for a stream or a lake or the hills.  If they weren’t hitting books, they were studying afield; that put them in my “heroes” category.

Margo has developed a career helping scientists solve problems by understanding the spatial relationships of the issues which vex them.  Brandon is a fisheries guy, managing salmon habitat projects for the Yakama Nation.

Over breakfast, we caught up a bit on family, old professors, careers and retirement, and then returned to our long-standing conversation about fishing, salmon and the role of the Yakamas.

30 years ago, Chinook in the Yakima were gone.  In response to diminishing returns, the four tribes which carried out subsistence fishing in the Columbia System—led by the Yakamas—had already voluntarily quit fishing the spring and summer Chinook runs.  At the insistence of the tribes, commercial Columbia River fishing for springers and summer kings ended.  Biologists mostly agreed that heavy commercial fishing, poor irrigation water management in spawning areas, and the last of the Columbia Basin dams had pretty much wiped out the salmon stocks.

Around 1980, many biologists spoke out for shutting down all salmon fisheries to rebuild stocks, but large-scale ocean fishing and non-Indian fishing continued well into the ‘80s, as did year-round seasons for anadromous species on the Columbia.  The weight of the threatened runs overrode the political value of keeping the seasons, and changes were made.

During 1980, the state sued the Yakamas to stop all subsistence fishing not already voluntarily stopped.  The state used “conservation concerns” to support its case, and remaining tribal ceremonial and subsistence fishing was shut down for two years.

Then, the Klickitat irrigation district announced plans to essentially drain the river for its needs, thus wiping out another “usual and accustomed” Yakama fishery.  This time, the Yakamas used the “conservation concerns” argument to sue and stop the complete removal of the water.

During the same time period, Cle Elum dam was shut down to preserve irrigation water.  That closure virtually destroyed the redds (salmon spawning “nests”) in the Yakima, and killed any smolts (salmon young) which were trying to move down river.  Watching this was Bob Tuck, a Central grad and fisheries biologist for the Yakama Nation.  He argued for keeping the Cle Elum open to protect the redds and smolts, and closing off other dams which did not hover over critical salmon habitat.  In response, the state and feds refused to release water and withheld salmon eggs—future salmon—from the Indians.  The Yakamas put their treaty rights on the line.

Those treaty rights were upheld by the courts, all the way up.  Appropriate flows were kept in the streams and salmon eggs were shared.  The Indians committed to “gravel to gravel” management, protecting salmon through their complete life cycle.  Better management of impounded irrigation water proved more than sufficient.  Our salmon story changed.

The Yakamas= Cle Elum hatchery facility has returned spring Chinook salmon.  The Coho which were gone from the Yakima and extinct in the Snake River system are returning, along with populations in the Clearwater of Idaho.  The Yakama, Umatilla and Nez Perce work closely with state and feds and each other.

Sockeye salmon are coming home.  The offspring of the fish released in Lake Cle Elum in 2009 returned this summer, after four years in the ocean, to make more sockeye.  Other lakes will see them, too.

Together, irrigators, power districts, sport fishers and Indians are restoring this missing piece of the life web to our river basins.  There are still those who don=t like splitting the salmon harvest between Indians and sport fishers, but the bottom line is this: if the Yakamas hadn’t put their treaty rights on the line, we would have no anadromous fish in the Columbia Basin to share.

Scenery, sockeye and good conversation over breakfast in the hills; it was a great morning.

Written by Jim Huckabay. Posted in Uncategorized