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Idaho taking public comment on opening weak steelhead run to harvest

Orofino fishing guide Jim McCarthy relishes the moment after netting two Clearwater River steelhead hooked simultaneously by clients while fishing from his boat on Feb. 25, 2015. The Idaho Fish and Game Commission on Friday, Oct. 13, 2017, approved a proposal from the Idaho Department of Fish and Game to open steelhead harvest on the Snake, Salmon, and Little Salmon rivers, plus the Clearwater and its north, south and middle forks. (Rich Landers / The Spokesman-Review)
Orofino fishing guide Jim McCarthy relishes the moment after netting two Clearwater River steelhead hooked simultaneously by clients while fishing from his boat on Feb. 25, 2015. The Idaho Fish and Game Commission on Friday, Oct. 13, 2017, approved a proposal from the Idaho Department of Fish and Game to open steelhead harvest on the Snake, Salmon, and Little Salmon rivers, plus the Clearwater and its north, south and middle forks. (Rich Landers / The Spokesman-Review)

FISHING -- Fisheries managers in Idaho and Washington could be on the verge of reopening steelhead harvest on the Snake, Salmon, Little Salmon and Clearwater rivers and opening a coho season on the Clearwater.

But on the hot topic of opening harvest on a weak run, the Idaho Fish and Game Commission wants to hear from the public first.

On Monday, the commission approved a coho season starting Saturday, Oct. 7, and running through Nov. 19, or until further notice. Coho fishing will be open on sections of the Clearwater, South Fork of the Clearwater and North Fork of the Clearwater.

Regarding steelhead, the commission postponed a decision on a staff proposal to reopen hatchery steelhead harvest with reduced bag limits. The commission plans to vote on Oct. 13 after Idaho Department of Fish and Game staff takes comment on the proposals through Oct. 10, department public information staffer Roger Phillips said today. 

Washington officials said they are also poised to open steelhead harvest, while matching any protective rules Idaho adopts.

Steelhead fishing is open, but for catch-and-release fishing only. On Aug. 15, Idaho Fish and Game and the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife closed the fall steelhead harvest because the run, which was already forecast to be lower than average, was returning smaller and-or later than expected.

At the time, fish managers said they would closely monitor the run and add restrictions, or request the commission to restore harvest, if hatchery needs would be met and additional hatchery fish were available. Through September, steelhead numbers steadily improved.

“Steelhead returns have rebounded and are now tracking along with the preseason forecast with over 113,000 expected to cross Bonneville Dam on the Columbia River,” said Lance Hebdon, anadromous fish manager for Fish and Game. “Returns projected to Idaho based on known Idaho fish passing Bonneville Dam are now enough to provide a harvest of hatchery steelhead, but with smaller bag limits.”

Here's more according to Phillips' release:

The proposal is to reduce the traditional daily bag limit from three to two in the Snake and Salmon rivers, with additional restrictions in the Clearwater and lower Snake limiting harvest to two steelhead less than 28 inches. The size restriction protects the larger “B-run” steelhead that are still not abundant enough to provide harvest without risking overharvesting fish needed to replenish hatcheries. 

Managers will continue to evaluate steelhead returns over Bonneville Dam and fish returning to Idaho. 

Hebdon estimates about 22,000 hatchery steelhead above broodstock needs are destined for Idaho rivers. Most of those fish have already been counted at Bonneville Dam. The hatchery fish are produced as mitigation for lost fishing opportunity associated with federal and Idaho Power dams in the basin. 

Managers also said wild fish, which cannot be harvested, will remain protected. While wild fish numbers are low this year, particularly the Clearwater River’s B-run fish, managers pointed out that Idaho had low wild returns in the past when there were abundant hatchery returns. Idaho's wild steelhead returns were as low or lower than this year as late as 2007-08. But wild returns quickly rebounded after river and ocean conditions improved. 

“Idaho takes a conservative approach to managing wild steelhead” Hebdon said. “We don’t allow any harvest of wild steelhead. About 85 percent of the wild steelhead habitat in Idaho is closed to all steelhead fishing, so the only impact to wild steelhead is associated with catch-and-release handling incidental to both catch-and-release and harvest fisheries targeting hatchery fish.    

“Harvesting hatchery fish and releasing wild fish has proven to be an effective conservation tool," Hebdon added. "We will continue to monitor wild steelhead populations in Idaho and are confident that the implementation of Idaho’s steelhead sport fisheries are not a risk to the goal of rebuilding wild steelhead populations."

He noted that Idaho has had essentially the same steelhead fishing rules since the 1990s with occasional changes to account for smaller returns, like this year’s.

Here's the complete proposal for steelhead harvest and more detailed information. 

Anglers can comment on the proposal via email or by phone to Joe DuPont, Clearwater Region Fishery Manager joe.dupont@idfg.idaho.gov; 208-799-5010

Here's more info compiled by Eric Barker of the Lewiston Tribune:

When harvest was closed, fisheries managers feared the run was in such poor shape that too few fish would return to meet hatchery spawning goals. In mid-August, fisheries managers said they expected as few as 6,600 Idaho-bound, A-run hatchery steelhead to return at least as far as Bonneville Dam, and they expected only 7,300 B-run steelhead, including just 1,100 wild fish.

Through Wednesday, about 23,000 Idaho-bound hatchery A-run steelhead and about 8,000 B-run steelhead have passed the dam. The B-run typically is dominated by fish that spend two years in the ocean, but this year about 3,500 of the fish counted at Bonneville Dam have spent just one year in saltwater.

Joe DuPont, regional fisheries manager for the Idaho Department of Fish and Game at Lewiston, said the run, while still low, has improved enough to consider allowing harvest on the A-run fish and the one-ocean component of the B-run.

“The run was obviously late, and with that many fish coming over there is definitely not the need to maintain the catch-and-release fishery,” he said. “We can provide some harvest and still have plenty of fish show up at our traps and meet brood needs.”

The proposal calls for allowing anglers to keep up to two hatchery steelhead per day on the Clearwater River and its North and South forks and on the Snake, Salmon and Little Salmon rivers. However, anglers would not be able to keep any steelhead longer than 28 inches on the Clearwater River and its tributaries, nor on the Snake River from the Idaho-Washington state line to Couse Creek south of Asotin. Anglers would be allowed to keep the larger steelhead on the Snake River south of Couse Creek, the Salmon River and Little Salmon River. Wild steelhead are protected by the Endangered Species Act and anglers are prohibited from keeping them.

DuPont said the size restrictions are designed to ensure enough of the two-ocean, B-run fish return to hatcheries to meet spawning goals. Since the run is dominated by fish that spend two to three years in the ocean, he said hatchery officials don’t like to use the one-ocean returners for spawning.

“If you spawn a lot of one-ocean returners, that would put more emphasis on that life history and we don’t want to do that,” he said.

Chris Donley, fish program manager for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife at Spokane, said his agency is planning to implement the same harvest rules on the Snake River that Idaho adopts.

“We are waiting to hear what Idaho is going to do so we can be consistent,” he said.

Idaho Fish and Game commissioners generally approve fishing rule recommendations presented to the commission. But commissioner Dan Blanco of Moscow said he is concerned with the speed with which this proposal was developed, and he has heard from many anglers who want to stick to catch-and-release fishing.

“I was a bit taken aback about how this came up that quickly without sufficient notice for the public to weigh in,” he said.

Idaho Fish and Game officials also are recommending the commission adopt a coho salmon season on the Clearwater River from its mouth to Clear Creek at Kooskia, and on the North Fork Clearwater from its mouth to Dworshak Dam. If approved, anglers would be able to catch as many as two coho per day and would be able to harvest fish with or without intact adipose fins. DuPont said about 3,000 to 4,000 coho are projected to return to the Clearwater River and only 1,400 are needed for spawning.




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Rich Landers
Rich Landers joined The Spokesman-Review in 1977. He is the Outdoors editor for the Sports Department writing and photographing stories about hiking, hunting, fishing, boating, conservation, nature and wildlife and related topics.

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