Columbia River Steelhead Runs, 80-years of ladder counts

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A Computation of Bonneville Dam Steelhead Run Numbers in the Columbia River

By: Mark Bachmann


The numbers used here were/are compiled by the Bonneville Power Administration and are considered to be accurate within acceptable tolerances.

What do the numbers mean?

There are few things about steelhead and steelhead fishing that are not to some degree theoretical. Why do steelhead bite flies, beads, or plastic worms? Why do some colors work on some days, months, years and not on others? We will never really know many things about steelhead for sure. The numbers supplied here will not help to answer any of those questions.The numbers are just a way to keep track of events that have happened, and a way to compare and correlate them to other data collected.

There are some absolutes about all sport fishing though. You do have to have your hook in the water, and the fish actually have to be where you are fishing in order to catch any. In the case of the steelhead counts presented here, more fish were caught when runs were over 600,000 fish than when runs are under 200,000 fish. Big runs of fish support big catches by anglers, and in turn this stimulates the economy especially in the for-profit sectors. Fishing guides/shops are much busier during big run years. My three most profitable years of guiding clients on the Deschutes River were 1986, 2001, and 2009 (in that order).

Columbia River Steelhead Numbers for Perspective (written in 2009)
The 2009 summer steelhead run in the Columbia Basin was far better than average. Counts are incomplete for 2009, as there are still nearly two months left in the year. However, in most years few steelhead pass over Bonneville Dam in November and December. At 602,306 it is doubtful that we will beat the 2001 total of 633,464. The best news is that at 171,538, the 2009 run of wild summer steelhead is the largest ever recorded over Bonneville Dam. The numbers below are offered for your contemplation.
The chart below draws no political or biological conclusions. It is only a table of raw data collected at one Columbia River dam for 71-years (about the length of one average human life). It does appear that within this short period of time that steelhead run numbers fluctuate significantly from year to year. Probably over a longer period of observation they would fluctuate even more. It would also appear that during the last ten year period we are on the high end of these fluctuations. We thought you would like a share of this good news.
The period of 2000-2009 saw 3,989,868 steelhead cross Bonneville Dam.
This compares to the ten year period of 1990-1999 when 2,180,512 steelhead passed through the same fish ladders. Trends might be seen more clearly when these numbers are compared to even earlier ten year periods. The 2000-2009 period has over twice the number of steelhead as any ten-period 1940-1979. Wild steelhead were not counted prior to 1994. The 2009 wild steelhead count exceeds 85% of the total steelhead counts prior to the 33-year period before 1970.

In the 2009 number, what is not taken into account are the effects of the Boldt Decision that was made in 1974, which gave Native Americans rights to harvest 50% of the Columbia River anadromous fish upstream of Bonneville Dam. Before 1974 Native American harvest had much less effect.

More numbers have been added as nearly another decade has past since the assumptions of the 2009 report was written. Because of that the decadal structure has changed slightly. Even though the last three seasons have yielded returns of less than 200,000 steelhead, the last two decades are still the best recorded.



Top decadal period: 2001-2010 = 4,155,871
Totals for decadal period: 1940-2009

Totals for decadal period: 1938-2017


2008-2017= 3,118,852
2000-2009 = 3,989,868
1998-2007 = 3,443,213
1990-1999 = 2,180,512
1988-1997 = 2,355,821
1980-1989 = 2,295,710
1978-1987 = 2,220,901
1970-1979 = 1,267,834
1968-1977 = 1,440,149
1960-1969 = 1,343,832
1958-1967 = 1,356,448
1950-1959 = 1,645,113
1948-1957 = 1,651,848
1940-1949 = 1,304,445
1938-1947 = 1,274,528


Bonneville Dam Steelhead counts
Start and end of a ten year period: starting yearending year

Starting year: 1938 Ending year: 2018

Year

Total Steelhead

Unclipped

1938

107003


1939

121932


1940

185161


1941

118087


1942

151395


1943

92151


1944

100473


1945

120086


1946

142806


1947

135434


1948

139062


1949

119285


1950

114087


1951

149539


1952

260990


1953

223914


1954

176260


1955

198411


1956

131116


1957

139184


1958

131347


1959

129026


1960

113676


1961

139726


1962

164025


1963

129418


1964

117252


1965

166445


1966

143661


1967

121872


1968

106974


1969

141782


1970

113510


1971

193966


1972

185886


1973

157823


1974

137054


1975

85540


1976

124177


1977

193437


1978

104431


1979

114007


1980

129254


1981

159270


1982

157640


1983

213779


1984

315587


1985

343961


1986

379891


1987

303081


1988

279072


1989

287798


1990

183027


1991

274545


1992

314975


1993

188377


1994

161978

29451

1995

202448

28036

1996

205216

30338

1997

258385

33580

1998

185094

35701

1999

206488

55064

2000

275178

76192

2001

633073

149317

2002

483956

143196

2003

365821

112823

2004

313377

97875

2005

315650

88999

2006

339301

85082

2007

325275

82197

2008

357845

105670

2009

604970

172383

2010

416603

156139

2011

369365

129166

2012

235303

85472

2013

234047

99148

2014

325965

130571

2015

268730

97782

2016

188146

52260

2017

117878

34405

2018

102891

33311






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