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Expanded access sought at Umatilla River fishery

By GEORGE PLAVEN
Of the East Oregonian

PENDLETON — With salmon and steelhead returns booming up the Umatilla River, local anglers are finding plenty of fish ripe for the catching.

What's missing, they argue, is enough public access on the water.

“I've always been uncomfortable with trespassing, so I've pretty much avoided using the river,” said John Dadoly, president of the Blue Mountain Fly Casters in Pendleton. “I'd say it's very underutilized.”

Looking to renew interest and recreation along the river, the Umatilla Basin Watershed Council is now considering boat ramps at 10 possible locations from Pendleton and Rieth through Echo, Stanfield and Hermiston.

The ramps would not be parks, but simply a point where users could put in or take out their boats without worrying about crossing over private property. As it is, Dadoly said he is only able to float short sections of the river near Mission and Barnhart Bluffs.

“There's a good steelhead and salmon run later in the spring, and just very limited access points to fish them,” he said. “It's a shame, really.”

Record fall chinook returns surged up from the Columbia River in 2013, with more than 2,300 adults passing Three Mile Falls Dam at last count. The fish were all but wiped out of the Umatilla Basin for nearly 70 years until restoration programs launched in the mid-1980s.

Bill Duke, district fish biologist with the Oregon Department of Fish & Wildlife, said they are predicting 4,000 spring chinook back this year as the fishery continues to recover. ODFW is working with the watershed council to gauge interest in boat ramps for better recreational opportunities on the river.

“We're just asking for input where the highest priority would be for anglers, and where they'd like to see ramps put in,” Duke said. “It would be a great positive for fishermen to enjoy the fish we have coming back as a result of this basin project.”

The question is who would help maintain the ramps and prevent them from becoming an eyesore. Potential sites identified by ODFW include Babe Ruth Park in Pendleton, Rieth Bridge, the city of Echo and across from Riverfront Park in Hermiston.

Duke said they are talking with the cities and county about taking on the responsibility, but realize money is tight for everybody. Dain Gardner, senior trooper with the Oregon State Police Fish and Wildlife Division, said he already patrols the river and doesn't anticipate many problems other than littering or dumping by a few bad apples in the communities.

As more people make use of the ramps, Gardner said he believes they will feel a sense of ownership and be quick to report any violations.

“Most people are law-abiding and want to take care of things,” he said. “We just want to make sure it doesn't become a dump site.”

Greg Silbernagel, executive director of the watershed council, said boat ramps also open up educational opportunities for people to take better care of the water and river habitat. The board is thinking about installing kiosks to provide more information about how the ecosystem supports fish survival.

If the project generates enough positive feedback, Silbernagel said they will prioritize which ramps to pursue first and funding to pay for construction.

“The Umatilla River has a fabulous fishery. It's just unknown because of the lack of access,” Silbernagel said. “We think this is a great idea. We're looking for project champions to the community for support.”

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Information from: East Oregonian, http://www.eastoregonian.info

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