What is potentially one of the largest returns of sockeye salmon in the last 80 years has begun making its way up the Columbia River to tributaries in B.C., with tens of thousands of fish now passing fish counters every day.

Howie Wright, a fish biologist with the Okanagan Nation Alliance, said up to 300,000 fish are expected to make the 1,000 kilometre journey and cross over Wells Dam south of Osoyoos Lake, with about 100,000 eventually forecast to reach the local spawning grounds.

That's a far cry from 1995 when the returns in the area were so low there were fears the fishery was collapsing.

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Sockeye salmon wait for access to spawning grounds in previous run at Scotch Creek, B.C. in 2011. (Matt Casselman)

Wright said the outcome of restoration and conservation efforts on the Columbia River is good news for all fishermen.

"People are able to fish again and able to share with other groups, so it's been quite satisfying in that fact," he said.

"We knew we were going to get a good return based on the number of smolts that left the system in 2011, but what we are seeing is a bit more than what was forecast coming back into the Columbia River."

However, caution is still warranted. In 2009, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans predicted a huge return of 10 million fish to the Fraser River. When only a million showed up, the apparent collapse of that fishery prompted a $26 million federal inquiry.

This year DFO is forecasting a return of about 23 million sockeye salmon to the Fraser River. However, it's still too early to tell whether that number will actually materialize and early test fisheries are inconclusive.

The sockeye salmon season begins in mid-July and lasts until mid-September with the bulk of the run beginning to arrive in B.C.rivers in early August.

With files from Brady Strachan and Mike Clarke