All posts by Andy Walgamott

SW WA Fishing Report

Salmon/Steelhead

Cowlitz River – 21 boat anglers sampled at Blue Creek kept 8 steelhead while 2 bank anglers had no catch.

Last week, Tacoma Power recovered 726 summer-run steelhead, 360 spring Chinook adults, 51 jacks, 107 mini-jacks and one sockeye salmon during five days of operation at the Cowlitz Salmon Hatchery separator. The sockeye salmon was the same fish that returned to the Cowlitz Salmon Hatchery separator three times last week. The fish was recycled downstream to the Massey Bar boat launch on the Cowlitz River.

Tacoma Power employees released 155 spring Chinook adults and 46 jacks into the upper Cowlitz River at the Day Use Park in Lake Scanewa above Cowlitz Falls Dam during the week.

River flows at Mayfield Dam are approximately 4,740 cubic feet per second on Tuesday, July 6. Water visibility is 16 feet.

Lewis River – At the mouth, 2 boat anglers sampled had kept 1 steelhead.

Drano Lake and the White Salmon River – New for 2010 – Both remain open for hatchery Chinook in July.

Lower Columbia below Bonneville Dam – During the first four days of July we sampled 989 bank anglers with 33 adult and 8 jack summer Chinook, 124 steelhead, and 8 sockeye.  In addition we sampled 310 boat anglers (136 boats) with 21 adult and 1 jack summer Chinook, 30 steelhead, and no sockeye.  Overall, 65% of the adult Chinook and 69% of the steelhead were kept.

Salmonid effort on Saturday July 3rd was heavy with nearly 400 boats and over 1,100 bank anglers counted during the flight.  Over 700 of the bank anglers were counted on the Washington shore.

Flows at Bonneville Dam are currently around 200,000 cfs or about half of the peak found in mid June.

The Dalles Pool – Bank anglers averaged an adult Chinook per every 12.4 rods when including fish released.  Light effort/catch from boats.  78% of the adult Chinook caught were kept.

Upriver Spring Chinook

  • The pre-season forecast was 470,000 adult upriver fish.  The preliminary final run size estimate is 315,100 adults (67% of forecast)

WILLAMETTE SPRING CHINOOK

  • The pre-season forecast for Willamette spring Chinook was 62,700 fish (adults and jacks).  To date, 85,800 Willamette spring Chinook can be accounted for from fisheries and passage.  The spring Chinook counting period at Willamette Falls continues through August 15.

Sockeye

  • Every day adds to the new record return of sockeye to the Columbia River.  Through July 5, just over 346,000 sockeye have been counted at Bonneville Dam (and that count does not include any sport catch below the dam).  The old record return, as measured when Bonneville Dam was completed in 1938,  was 335,300 fish in 1947.

Catch rates for legal size fish improved for charter boat anglers but declined for private boaters at the ports of Chinook and Ilwaco last week.   Forty-one percent of the charter boat anglers took home a legal size fish while private boaters averaged one per every 12 rods.  If an angler is lucky enough to catch a fish, there was a 29% chance it would be legal size.

STURGEON

Below the Wauna powerlines – Since July 1, catch rates for legal size fish improved for charter boat anglers but declined for private boaters last week.   Forty-one percent of the charter boat anglers took home a legal size fish while private boaters averaged one per every 11.2 rods.  If an angler is lucky enough to catch a fish, there was a 27% chance it would be legal size.

Considering it was a holiday weekend, sturgeon effort in the estuary was relatively light with nearly 200 private boats and 7 charters counted during last Saturday’s flight.

Scheduled to remain open for white sturgeon retention through July 11.  The cumulative catch through July 11 may reach 3,700 fish.  The catch guideline for the season is 9,600.  Fishery managers will review the catch data after July 11 to determine if additional fishing opportunity is available under the catch guideline.

Wauna powerlines to Marker 82 – Some legals were caught by boat anglers in the Longview-Kalama area.  During last Saturday’s flight, just under a hundred boats were counted.

WALLEYE AND BASS

The Dalles Pool – Boat anglers averaged a walleye per rod when including fish released.  They also caught some bass.

TROUT

Mayfield Lake – Expected to be planted with 10,000 catchable size rainbows in July.

Tilton River and Skate Creek – Both are expected to be planted with nearly 9.400 catchable size rainbows in July.

Goose Lake north of Carson – Has been planted with 5,500 catchable size brown trout and 6,000 catchable size cutthroats since mid June.

SHAD

Lower Columbia below Bonneville Dam – Effort and catch is waning.  Bank anglers just below Bonneville Dam averaged 1.5 fish per rod.  Just 4 boats and 19 bank anglers were counted from the dam downstream during last Saturday’s flight.   

Courtesy Joe Hymer, PFMC

Imnaha, Wallowa Springer Fishery Extended

(OREGON DEPARTMENT OF FISH AND WILDLIFE PRESS RELEASE)

The Imnaha and Wallowa rivers in Northeast Oregon will remain open to hatchery spring chinook fishing until further notice, fishery managers announced today.

“So far this year, unseasonably high water has really limited fishing opportunities,” said Jeff Yanke, ODFW district fish biologist in Enterprise.  “This means we’re able to extend the season so anglers and local communities can benefit from this strong salmon run.”

With local runs complete at Bonneville Dam, ODFW biologists now estimate 8,000 adult spring chinook will return to both the Imnaha and Wallowa Rivers.  Approximately 75 percent of the total return to each river will be marked hatchery fish available for harvest.

Current fishery regulations will apply through the extension period.  Anglers are reminded to ask permission before entering private property to fish, and to pick up trash when leaving. In addition, anglers are asked to respect tribal members that may also be fishing for spring chinook using traditional methods.

“The duration of the fishery will depend on environmental conditions and angler success, both of which we will be monitoring carefully”, said Yanke.  “Our goal is to optimize the fishing opportunity while meeting our conservation responsibility”.

Chattaroy Man Wins WA Moose Raffle

Harry Williamson of Chattaroy won Washington’s moose tag raffle in Spokane last night, the first ever awarded that way.

His was one of around 1,300 $10 tickets sold for a drawing put on by the Inland Northwest Wildlife Council.

He will be able to take a bull or a cow with any legal weapon in any open unit in Region 1, according to INWC executive director Wanda Clifford.

“This was our first time at raffling a moose tag with the game department and quite an experience for us,” she says. “A large part of the profits go back to the WDFW. The rest of the funds go into our projects of big game, upland bird, hunter education and others.”

The group, founded in 1951, commits 20,000 hours of volunteer time annually towards wildlife- and hunting-related projects. Its Big Game Recovery Committee collects freshly road-killed deer, elk and moose to help feed hungry citizens in the region, a program former club president James A. Nelson detailed earlier this year in Northwest Sportsman.

The INWC was one of two groups allowed to raffle off hunts this year. The other, the Washington Chapter of the Foundation for Wild Sheep, had sold 2,524 tickets through the end of June for a chance to hunt a Rocky Mountains ram in the Blues, according to its Web site; typically, an average of 4,300 are sold. Deadline to buy is July 5.

WDFW also raffles off a number of special deer, elk, bighorn, mountain goat, bear, cougar and turkey. Deadline to purchase tickets this year is July 23. In 2009, the department’s drawings raised $224,544.

Moose populations in their Northeast Washington stronghold may not be growing like they once were, but the species has spread into the Blue Mountains, areas of the Palouse, the treed plains west of Spokane, the Okanogan and even a few have been spotted in the Wenatchee-Chelan County area. More than 120 special hunting permits have been available to hunters in recent years.

Clifford hopes INWC can hold a moose-tag raffle next year.

Sky To Close For Chinook Retention

(WASHINGTON DEPARTMENT OF FISH & WILDLIFE EMERGENCY RULE CHANGE NOTICE)

Chinook salmon retention ends July 6 on the Skykomish River

Action: Close chinook salmon retention on the Skykomish River.

Effective date: July 6 through July 31, 2010.

Species affected: Chinook salmon.

Location: Skykomish River from the mouth upstream to the Wallace River.

Reason for action: Chinook broodstock collection at the Wallace River Hatchery is well behind the goal of 3,200. As of June 29, only 547 chinook broodstock have been trapped at the hatchery. The closure of the sport fishery for hatchery chinook on the Skykomish River is necessary in order to fulfill broodstock collection requirements. If the broodstock collection goal is met prior to July 31, the Skykomish River sport fishery for hatchery chinook may resume.

Other information: The Skykomish River from the mouth upstream to the Wallace River will remain open for hatchery summer steelhead and all other game fish.

Information contact: Jennifer Whitney, Region 4 Fish Manager (425) 775-1311

Record Sockeye Run Now Forecasted

Columbia River salmon managers are now forecasting 2010’s sockeye run at three times the preseason prediction, which if it comes in, would be an all-time record back to 1938.

“The Technical Advisory Committee (TAC) updated the sockeye run to 375,000 fish at the Columbia River mouth,” reads an email this afternoon from Joe Hymer, a fisheries biologist in Vancouver. “This will be a record run size.”

As of yesterday, a total of 286,706 sockeye had crossed Bonneville Dam, the most ever counted at that point 144 miles above the mouth, according to data from the Fish Passage Center.

However, the record overall return to the Columbia is 1947’s 335,300, which was given a severe whack by downstream fisheries before it reached the dam.

As dam counts mounted a week ago, Washington and Oregon upped the preseason forecast to 250,000 and began announcing fishery opening on the Lower, Mid and Upper Columbia.

While catch expectations are low, Julian Zirkle at Fisherman’s Marine had some advice for how to slay sox on the lower river: “I’d say stay in close, use bright colors and smaller Spin-N-Glos.”

As for a Lake Wenatchee fishery, earlier this week, a WDFW manager said he was not in a gambling mood.

Hymer notes that the summer Chinook run has been slightly downgraded to 82,000, from 88,000, to the mouth of the Columbia.

Meanwhile, large numbers of summer steelhead are crossing Bonneville, 31,352 through yesterday, over 13,300 above the 10-year average and nearly 20,000 above last year’s whopper run.

Pautzke Adds 5th Color in Nectar Line

Pautzke Bait Company announced today that it’s adding a fifth color to its Nectar line of liquid bait enhancement products, just in time for the height of summer steelhead and salmon fishing seasons.

“Due to high demand … we’ve decided to come out with purple Nectar,” says Chris Shaffer, the Ellensburg, Wash., company’s director of operations, in an email to outdoor media. “It’ll be ready to ship and available in about two to three weeks.”

Other colors already available include original (red), blue, yellow and orange.

Nectar is made from cooked salmon eggs — the natural juice that runs off the Pautzke patented egg-cooking process — and can be squirted straight onto bait and lures or soaked in baits. In areas where chumming is legal the Nectar is often mixed in with sour milk, grains and bran.

“It’s no different than the other Nectars,” says Shaffer of the new shade, “but does do a great job dying things purple, i.e. prawns, coon shrimp, anchovies, herring, octopus, alewives, etc. Those of you fishing inland Chinook in California can use it to dye and scent the baits you are trolling for kings too.”

The addition should help anglers otherwise trying to create purple tint by mixing other colors.

40 Oregon Fisheries For The 4th

It took just four little letters — the hell with how far out they were — to set off fireworks earlier this week: T-U-N-A.

The first report of the season came back last Saturday, and though the catch is nowhere close to 2007’s stellar fishery at this same point, it lit up albie anglers as far away as Provo, Utah, on ifish.

But if heading 50 to 90 miles out to sea is a wee bit ambitious for your Fourth of July weekend, there’s a bunch of other, far more accessible fisheries to consider — trout fishing in the Cascades, largemouth fishing near Florence, cutts in coastal creeks, crappie in Eastern Oregon, to name a few opportunities.

ANGLERS ARE FINDING SOME STURGEON IN THE LOWER COLUMBIA RIVER, INCLUDING THIS KEEPER CAUGHT RECENTLY BY JENNA BLANC, HER FIRST. MANAGERS RECENTLY EXTENDED THE FISHERY. (LAZER SHARP PHOTO CONTEST)

Here are more highlights from ODFW’s weekly Recreation Report:

SOUTHWEST ZONE

  • The Rogue River from Gold Ray Dam up to Dodge Bridge will open up to the harvest of non adipose fin-clipped spring chinook salmon from July 1 through August 31.
  • Trout fishing has been great on Howard Prairie Reservoir; bass and crappie are moving into the shallows and are biting.
  • Fishing for resident cutthroat trout is picking up in many rivers and streams. Flies or small spinners are the best bets.
  • Warmwater fishing is improving in several area lakes and ponds. Bluegill are staging in shallow water preparing to spawn and the males are very aggressive. Largemouth bass fishing at Hyatt Lake and Tenmile Lakes has been very good and a 7-pound bass was recently caught in Cooper Creek Reservoir.

NORTHWEST ZONE

  • Nestucca & Three Rivers: Spring chinook and summer steelhead angling has been fair to good. Bobber and eggs/shrimp will produce for chinook, with most action in the lower river below Beaver. Try spinners or bobber and jigs for steelhead as the water clears, especially in the upper river. Fishing for cutthroat trout has been fair, with fish spread throughout the river.
  • Salmon River: Cutthroat trout angling is fair to good and can offer anglers opportunity throughout the mainstem. Using small spinners, other lures or fly fishing can be very effective. Use of bait is restricted above tidewater until September 1.
  • Siletz River: Steelhead angling has kicked in for the summer and is providing a good fishery for many bank anglers. Good numbers of summer steelhead are returning now with many more expected through July. Fish can be found through out the mainstem with drift boat angling from Twin Bridges down to Morgan Park as flows allow and bank access from Moonshine Park up to the deadline. Cutthroat trout fishing is fair to good. Anglers can expect good fishing for cutthroat trout throughout most of the basin. Using small spinners or fly fishing can be very productive.
  • The Siuslaw River and Lake Creek are providing fair to good angling for cutthroat trout. Anglers can find good numbers of cutthroat trout in most areas of the main stem rivers. Using small spinners, spoons or fly fishing can be very effective. Use of bait is restricted until September 1 above tidewater.
  • Trask River: Fishing for adipose fin-clipped spring chinook has been fair to good. Bobber and bait in the deeper holes has been the most productive. A few summer steelhead are available throughout the river. Fishing for cutthroat trout has been fair to good. Fish will be spread out through the main river up to the county park.
  • Yaquina River: Angling for cutthroat trout in the Yaquina and Big Elk is fair to good. Generally using small spinners, spoons or other lures can be very effective. Fly fishing is also very productive. Use of bait is restricted above tidewater until September 1.

WILLAMETTE ZONE

  • Spring chinook and summer steelhead are being landed in good numbers on the Clackamas and Sandy rivers. The bag limit has been increased to three adult salmon/steelhead in combination on these two rivers as well as on the the Willamette below Willamette Falls.
  • Steelhead and spring chinook are being caught in the McKenzie and Middle Fork of the Willamette Rivers.
  • More than 50,000 spring chinook and 20,000 summer steelhead have crossed Willamette Falls and are moving into the upper Willamette and its tributaries. Try fishing at San Salvador and Wheatland Ferry on the Willamette and around the mouths of the Tualatin, Molalla, and Santiam rivers.
  • Spring chinook are moving into the Santiam and McKenzie systems.

CENTRAL ZONE

  • Fish on!!! Big Lava Lake continues to produce stellar catches of beautiful rainbow trout.
  • Trout fishing on the Crooked River has been good, and the recent population survey found larger trout this year compared to recent years.
  • Kokanee fishing has been good on Odell and Paulina lakes.

SOUTHEAST ZONE

  • Trout fishing continues to be good in several area lakes and reservoirs including Balm Creek, Thief Valley and Unity reservoirs and Highway 203 and Burns ponds.
  • The BLM has opened access up to Fish Lake on Steens Mountain and fishing should be good over the holiday weekend.
  • The Powder River is open for spring chinook with a daily bag limit of two fish.

NORTHEAST ZONE

  • Fishing for 8 to 10-inch crappie continues to be good on McKay Reservoir.
  • Jubilee Lake has been stocked and the boat ramp will be open in time for the Fourth of July weekend.
  • Shad fishing on the Columbia River below McNary Dam is heating up.

SNAKE RIVER ZONE

  • Crappie are spawning and fishing is good at Brownlee Reservoir, especailly from a boat. Use jigs with a crappie nibble. Bass are biting but are fairly small. Some large catfish are being caught. Trolling for trout is fair. The reservoir is full. Call Idaho Power Company’s recording at 1-800-422-3143 to get information on access at recreational sites or visit their Web site under the “Rivers and Recreation” heading.
  • Fishing for crappie with jigs from the bridge at Oxbow on Hells Canyon Reservoir is good.  Trout fishing should be good near the mouths of tributaries

COLUMBIA ZONE

  • Effective June 26 angling is open for adipose fin-clipped summer chinook, adipose fin-clipped summer steelhead, and sockeye from the Astoria-Megler Bridge upstream to the Oregon/Washington Border.
  • Shad fishing is fair below Bonneville Dam.
  • Sturgeon fishing is fair near Astoria.

MARINE ZONE

  • A few intrepid saltwater anglers were successful at landing albacore tuna last week. Some were more than 90 miles off shore, with the nearest report being about 50 miles offshore. As of last weekend, fewer than a hundred fish have been landed. By comparison, in 2007 more than 1,800 tuna were landed by the end of June.
  • Fishing for marked coho south of Cape Falcon to the Oregon/California border opened Saturday (June 26). Only about one angler in 10 were successful at landing a coho last week. Only marked coho (all coho must have a healed adipose fin clip) may be retained. That season will run through Sept. 6 or until the quota of 26,000 marked coho is met, which ever comes first. The bag limit is two salmon.
  • Fishing for Chinook was slow again last week with fewer than one in seven anglers landing a fish. The “All Salmon Except Coho” salmon season from Cape Falcon to Oregon/California  border opened May 29 and runs through Sept. 6. Bag Limit: Two salmon.
  • North of Cape Falcon to the Oregon/Washington border the “Selective Chinook Season” opened June 12 with few reports of fish landed. Fishing for chinook will continue through earlier of June 30 or 12,000 marked Chinook quota. Bag Limit: All salmon except coho. Two salmon per day, all retained Chinook must have a healed adipose fin clip.
  • Fishery managers added two days to the all-depth sport halibut fishery off the central Oregon coast. Fishing for Pacific halibut will be open July 1 and 2 at all depths. Being open for three days had a high likelihood of exceeding the spring quota, which would come out of the much-smaller summer quota. Based on that, and the fact that the next opening is for the 4th of July holiday weekend fishery managers decide to go with only two days. If any quota remains after that time, it will be rolled into the quota for the summer fishery.
  • Fishing for lingcod remained at about one fish for every two anglers targeting lingcod. Most anglers surveyed filled their limit of bottom fish. Success in catching lings and most other bottom fish improves as waves moderate.

Lack Of Upwelling Bad, Maybe Good News For Oregon Anglers

As giddy as we were about last weekend’s tuna catch 90 miles out of Newport, a bit of sobering news today about early-season ocean conditions off Oregon’s Central Coast.

“We have had the lowest amount of upwellings so far this year that anyone’s seen in 25 years. We have a very unproductive ocean out there right now,” says Brandon Ford, a marine resource specialist at ODFW’s office right across the street from the boat launch.

He says a remotely operated vehicle recently found 100 feet of visibility at Stonewall Banks, some 20 nautical miles out of Yaquina Bay.

Great for divers, but also indicative of “nothing in the water for anyone to eat.”

Visibility at the banks is usually just 10 feet, he says.

“It was spooky it was so clear,” Ford says.

The Pacific off Oregon is not completely devoid of food — gray whales, orcas and, of course, lots of halibut have been spotted out of Newport over the last month — but this spring and summer’s odd, cool weather due to El Nino has broken down the “northwest wind machine” that usually produces rich upwellings off the shore, bringing a smorgasbord of feed for all sorts of marine critters.

“What it does is it pushes the surface water inshore and draws up the cold, deep water that’s very nutrient-rich,” says Ford. “It hits the photo layer, causes an algae explosion and that triggers everything.”

Too much of an explosion, when bacteria can’t deal with the ocean’s extreme productivity, has caused anoxic dead zones in the past.

At the moment, he’s more worried about feeding conditions greeting outmigrating Chinook and coho smolts.

“Unless we get some winds …,” he says, but adds, “It’s almost too late for this year.”

Bill Peterson, a NOAA oceanographer also in Newport, also worries about what this year’s inconsistent winds may mean for young salmon and steelhead as well as sea birds which time their runs to the ocean and nesting to meet food availability — but he also points out that the lack of winds may benefit albie anglers.

“When the winds stop blowing in July and August, tuna can come in super-close to shore — 5 or 10 miles,” he says.

The upwelling basically forms a thermal barrier that blocks warmer tuna waters otherwise pushing toward the beach.

“People don’t realize offshore off Oregon stays warm all year round,” Peterson says.

Boats are out catching tuna in April, 300 miles offshore, he says.

But wait, I asked Peterson, if there’s 100 feet of viz and no food at Stonewall, why the hell would tuna come cruising in so close?

He doesn’t know exactly what they feed on, but points out that tuna, a blue-water species, have evolved to deal with the problem of finding forage in low-food environments.

“It’s the dilemma of a warmwater fish that’s warmer than the ocean. They’re stuck living in tropical water, but they can swim fast and chase anything down,” Peterson says.

More northerly fish can’t fin as fast, but live in far richer environments, he points out.

For this year, there’s time for the upwellings to kick in. Peterson says 2005 started out this same way — a neighbor of Ford’s caught tuna 5 miles out of Depoe Bay that summer — but by mid-July, the winds kicked in and it “ended up being a good year.”

But at this point the tuna fishing has a looooooong way to go. Ford points out that by this time during 2007’s huge tuna season, 1,800 had been brought back to the dock coastwide. So far, only 19 have been counted, though that tally is only for Newport.

The Central Coast’s first sport Chinook fishery in two years has also started out “poor … on the order of one in 10 anglers have been catching a salmon.”

Meanwhile, as if all that wasn’t enough bad news, the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch yesterday tossed a “stink bomb” on the state’s commercial fleet when it recommended consumers “avoid” wild-caught salmon off Oregon south of Cape Falcon because they claim the fisheries are unsustainable.

That’s due to the “perilous” state of the Sacramento River fall king run, Seafood Watch explained to The Oregonian.

Defends Ford, “We took a very conservative position on the number of fish we can catch.”

Wenatchee Sockeye Manager Not In Gambling Mood

Sure, the numbers look outlandishly good at downstream dams and the preseason forecast has been doubled — just don’t expect that to translate into an automatic Lake Wenatchee sockeye fishery this summer.

“I’d say at this point it’s unlikely,” says Jeff Korth, WDFW’s regional fishery manager in Ephrata, this afternoon. “I gambled last year and I lost, and I’m not likely to do that again.”

Mathematical formulas based on downstream dam counts pointed to a run of 30,000 and led him to sign off on a fishery at the Chelan County lake last summer. However, only 15,000 actually came back, he says.

The run was also hit with substantial and unexpected” mortality due to very warm river conditions below the lake, forcing managers to close the season after only seven days of fishing.

Korth says that when he and other biologists talked about opening other waters in his region to sockeye fishing late last week, they went “around and around” about Lake Wenatchee, but couldn’t come up with a “for sure” way to predict that system’s run.

He claims there’s a strange inverse relationship with the size of the Okanogan River’s run.

“It’s likely we’ll see over 300,000, but like I say, the larger the run, the smaller the run” back to Lake Wenatchee, Korth says.

He anticipates only 7 or 8 percent of those fish to turn left at the Wenatchee and make for the faux-Bavarian town of Leavenworth, upstream of which is the lake.

“I need 25,000 to open it up any reasonable amount of time,” says Korth.

That number of fish would provide a surplus of 2,000 catchable salmon — a season for which might last a week, he says — and still leave enough in the lake to meet the escapement goal of 23,000.

About the only thing from a management perspective that makes sense any sense to Korth is that the lake opens every four years. Besides last year, it did so in 2008, 2004, 2001 and 1993.

Still, he will be monitoring the count at Tumwater Dam, 24 miles below the lake, and the last gatepost the salmon cross on their journey home.

“If we reach escapement, we’ll still have time to fish on them,” Korth says.

Stay tuned, and in the meantime, hit the upper Columbia’s pools if you want sox, man. Korth reminds us that the daily limit is a whopping six adult salmon.

Only three of those may be Chinook, and only one of those wild.

Marijuana Growers Invade Northwest Hunting Grounds

‘They were in some of the best hunting areas I know,’ says one hunter; ‘Grave concern over the threat to public safety,’ says a WDFW official.

ROYAL CITY, Wash.–Washington outdoorsmen say illegal marijuana gardens are cropping up where they chase big game and varmints, look for morels and near trails to alpine lakes, and if trends continue, a record number of plants could be seized on those public lands this summer.

AN OFFICER BELIEVED TO BE WDFW'S SHAWN MYERS CARRIES MARIJUANA PLANTS SEIZED AT A CHELAN COUNTY, WASH., BUST IN 2008. (SGT. DOUG WARD, WDFW)

Pot is now being cultivated everywhere from the Westside’s blacktail forests to the heart of North-central Washington’s mule deer country to the moose-rich northeastern corner to the creek bottoms of the Columbia Basin where ducks and doves gather along trophy trout waters.

“They were in some of the best hunting areas I know,” says a Northeast Washington man who turned in several 100- to 200-plant grows to law enforcement officials the last two years, and who asked not to be identified.

The largest plantations, funded by Mexican drug cartels, can be ten times as big and are protected by well-armed men.

“I take extra caution this time of year when I’m out and about,” says one North-central sportsman who wouldn’t have thought twice when heading afield just seven or eight years ago. “I’m not too worried about wolves, but being from the Okanogan Valley and hearing the stories, I wouldn’t leave home without a firearm.”

Then there are environmental issues. Growers terrace mountainsides, divert streams and springs, use a range of insecticides and pesticides and leave thousands of pounds of trash behind after late summer’s harvest.

Whether legalizing marijuana would bring a halt to the danger and damage is a good question, but in the here and now, as high summer comes on and with a low snowpack last winter, even more of the highly sophisticated, labor-intensive operations could be in the Evergreen State.

“I think this year’s going to be conducive,” says Lt. Richard Wiley of the Washington State Patrol.

WHAT’S BELIEVED TO BE the first bust of 2010 – “the earliest recorded growing effort in that area yet” – was discovered accidentally April 30 on state land near Royal City.

Department of Fish & Wildlife enforcement officers were actually training how to take down grows when they came across a suspicious bootprint at the Lower Crab Creek Unit of the Columbia Basin Wildlife Area.

“You always prepare for the unknown, but did we expect to detect a grow? No, we were surprised,” says WDFW Deputy Chief Mike Cenci.

According to the USA Today, 75 to 80 percent of outdoor marijuana grows occur on public lands, “right in the middle of our patrol beats,” wrote Cenci for a 2009 International Game Warden Magazine article.

He describes the location of the Crab Creek bust as in almost “impenetrable” Russian olive groves – “You can hardly see in front of you; your field of view is like 10 feet.”

Perfect escape habitat for cagey wild rooster pheasants – several of which Cenci saw – and good for growing pot.

The crop had yet to be planted, but camp was “fully outfitted” with propane tanks, sacks of fertilizer, hand tools and a mile of irrigation line to water the 1,700 to 2,000 seed cups with five seeds apiece that officers found.

“The ingenuity and work that goes into it is incredible,” says Wiley. One Washington grow was linked to water by 4 miles of buried hose, he says.

Indeed, these are not your everyday gardens or gardeners. He says the cartels put on “big training sessions” for how to run it all.

“The trend now is a live-in grower,” adds Cenci. “You hang out with your plants.”

He says the Royal City tender somehow escaped, but left two rifles behind.

“The growers are usually armed, a risk to us, a risk to sportsmen,” Cenci says.

During a 2008 bust near San Jose, Calif., a warden was shot in both legs and a grower killed. Cenci and eight other fish and wildlife cops went into the brush heavily armed – German-made submachine guns, semi-auto handguns and hundreds of rounds of ammo.

WDFW FISH AND WILDLIFE ENFORCEMENT OFFICERS WHO ASSISTED IN THE LOWER CRAB CREEK BUST. (WDFW)

“I have a grave concern over the threat to public safety,” he says. “I generally look to California for trends, and the trend as it relates to this issue is not pretty. There have been a number of encounters with growers where the public narrowly escaped harm.”

Growers actually don’t want attention, and to limit it, food is backpacked in occasionally by a “lunchman.”

They also hunt and fish during the three to four months the marijuana needs to ripen. Birds, rabbits and fish made up part of the diet for guys at a 12,000-plant grow on Saddle Mountain National Wildlife Refuge north of the Tri-Cities busted in 2008. Those at a Republic-area grow last year butchered a moose.

WASHINGTON AND California are the top two outdoor marijuana-growing states, according to Wiley.

Since the border was tightened after 9-11 and then as eradication efforts ramped up, the number of plants found on Washington’s national and state forests, parks, recreation and wildlife areas as well as tribal and other lands has grown from 6,500 in 2001 to 589,000 last year.  In dollar terms, the confiscation of 228,000 plants in Oregon in 2009 represented a $451 million loss to the cartels, The Oregonian reported in late April.

“Our guess is we’re not finding most of them,” says Det. Steve Brown of the North-central Washington Narcotics Task Force.

The Evergreen State is the second most densely populated state in the West, but as hunters and anglers know, it also has vast amounts of remote land and tens of thousands of miles of logging roads and trails.

Thanks to the Eastside’s fruit orchards, vineyards and the Columbia Basin Project, there’s a ready supply of irrigation equipment and plenty of water to go along with hot summers. And with a little bit of pruning, the woods can be opened up to let more light in on the crop, yet still be tight enough to evade aerial detection.

“They cut rooms out inside the thickets and leave an upper story of canopy for cover from helicopters and planes,” says a Grant County hunter.

HE STUMBLES onto the abandoned sites near springs and drainages in fall while stalking deer, in winter while pursuing coyotes or looking for shed antlers in early spring.

“But after April 1, I try to avoid the brush because of them,” he says.

In spring and summer, mushroom pickers, off-trail alpine anglers, hunters scouting for deer, bear and elk and other outdoor users also stand a higher chance of coming across a plantation and its tenders.

“It’s an issue that’s a lot more concerning than a lot of people think,” says the Okanogan Valley outdoorsman, who also requested anonymity. “It’s definitely without a doubt one of the biggest concerns sportsmen have in our area anymore.”

The grows at Royal City and Saddle Mountain were at low elevation, but many are concentrated between 3,000 and 6,000 feet. They’ve been found everywhere from the high country between Mt. Adams and Mt. St. Helens to Sun Mountain near Winthrop to Tiger Mountain outside Seattle.

MOUNTAIN-SIDE GROW OP IN NORTHERN WASHINGTON. (NORTH-CENTRAL WASHINGTON NARCOTICS TASK FORCE)

“While some signs will serve as warnings to hunters and fishers, the risk of stumbling onto a grow unaware is high. We are trying to educate the public,” Cenci says.

Sometimes it’s obvious something illegal is going on in the area – “wrong type of cars and people in the mountains,” recalls one Wenatchee-area hunter – but the best advice if you run across a grow is to get out of the area quickly.

“We advise people don’t talk to growers, don’t walk around the grow, punch in a GPS waypoint and walk out,” Brown says.

IN FALL 2007, a deer hunter reported a site way up Goat Creek, in western Okanogan County’s Methow Valley, that had been “put to bed” for the season, Brown says, “tarps on everything for use the next year.”

Sure enough, growers came back – and so did the sheriff one August day. The raid netted 10,000 plants and one arrest, Moyses Mesas-Barajas, 43, of Michoacan, Mexico.

That hunter could have collected up to $5,000. Funded by grants from the Drug Enforcement Administration, the State Patrol operates a special tip line to report grows. The amount available fluctuates year to year, but in 2009, it paid out $65,000, Wiley says.

“We have a formula for how many plants and how many arrests are made for how much of a reward they get,” he says. “It’s fairly successful. Ten to 15 percent of the plants that we eradicate every year comes from tips.”

Online, some hunters grumble they’ve called in tips and not been paid, but others also speak of handsome rewards – $4,000 for one up the Wynoochee Valley in the mid-1990s, $5,000 for one in Eastern Washington last year.

The key to collecting is to call (800) 388-GROW rather than local police departments (the line is a clearinghouse; info will be forwarded to sheriffs and regional task forces).

You can also report anonymously, but must stay on the line and talk to a person to be eligible for the money. Information on how to report after-hours tips can be found at wsp.wa.gov/crime/hotline.htm.

ERADICATION IS ONLY part of the battle for wildland managers, though.

“Environmental damage is a huge problem for people who have to clean them up,” says Brown.

Tanks of harmful chemicals and fertilizers, as well as trash and more must be gathered and hauled out from the backcountry.

“The expense is enormous,” Brown says. “A lot are in remote areas, so it has to be helicoptered out, and that’s not cheap for a couple days.”

Forest Service crews returned to Goat Creek last year to tear down makeshift housing, fencing and a watchtower, fill in water catch basins and rehab the grounds. Over 200 pounds of fertilizer as well as chemical containers were cleaned up to prevent spillage that might harm wildlife or water quality – all in all a huge effort that took workers and resources away from other projects and cost $12,906.22.

HELICOPTERING OUT SEIZED PLANTS DURING AN AUGUST 2008 RAID ON A GROW OP IN WASHINGTON'S MULE DEER RICH UPPER METHOW VALLEY. (OKANOGAN COUNTY SHERIFF'S OFFICE)

In trying to impart the seriousness of the issue, Cenci needles his wildlife area managers when they get bent after someone parks in the wrong spot at an access site.

“Twenty thousand-plant grows are a little more of an impact,” he says, calling for more education and money to deal with the issue.

“We do need to throw more resources at this problem,” Cenci says. “The public safety danger and environmental impacts are beginning to dawn on folks.”

In the meanwhile he vows to continue to protect state wildlife lands.

“We can’t eradicate dope, but we can try to keep it off our lands,” he says. “We’re going to be aggressive about going after them.”