June hogs: Perhaps no other two words in the English language have more power to send Northwest fishermen racing for our best gear and high-test lines.

There is a palpable sense of excitement on the Lower Columbia over the summer chinook salmon season that started Friday and runs through the end of July. These fish - in this case more accurately called July hogs - truly are the stuff of legend.

Spring chinook are renowned for their flavor and consistency (Willapa Bay spring chinook recently were favorably compared to Copper River salmon in The New York Times), but summer chinook really are the big boys and girls responsible for our historic salmon industry.

All around the world a century ago, epicures searched out Columbia salmon packed no later than July. Some pioneer salmon packers regarded fall chinook as too soft and pale to even bother catching. Millions of May, June and July chinook were the foundation of fortunes and the impetus for towns like Astoria and Ilwaco.

Not for 29 years, longer than many fishermen have been alive, has there been a sport season for these fish. It's hard to know what to expect. But judging by fish counts at Bonneville and stories of success during the recent ocean season, fishermen and charter operators are in for a wild ride the next few weeks.

During the three-decade hiatus from summer chinook fishing, many assumed there would never be a season again. Dams, poor ocean conditions, fisheries mismanagement and higher water temperatures all conspired to kill this fish that laid the golden egg.

The fact of the matter is that victory is a ways off with regard to these issues.

For reasons we don't fully understand, ocean conditions have significantly improved, with large schools of bait fish present off the Northwest coast; witness the resurgent sardine fishery. Salmon runs last year and this also benefited from high runoff and cold water in 1998 and 1999 when they migrated to the ocean.

Much as we might like to, there isn't much we can do to facilitate continuation of these natural trends. In fact, last year's drought bodes very ill for salmon returns in 2004.

There are, however, things we can do to maximize chances for more summer chinook seasons in future years. One is to continue funding for the hatcheries in Washington and Idaho responsible for producing 60 percent of these returning hogs.

In the longer term, we need to continue working in cooperation with Northwest tribes to replicate conditions that existed for Columbia salmon before civilization made such a muddle of things. Short of the politically difficult step of taking out dams, we must continue steps aimed at bettering fish passage, improving habitat and lowering water temperatures.

A summer chinook season is a joyous occasion, a thing to appreciate. We need to strive toward making it a routine event.


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