This is shaping up to be a hallmark year for steelheaders, with the return of sea-run trout at near-record levels. Through Tuesday, 127,413 steelhead were counted at Lower Granite Dam, 35 miles west of Clarkston on the Snake River. At Bonneville Dam on the Columbia River, 572,152 steelhead were tallied.
Fishing had been red-hot this month in the confluence of the Snake and Clearwater rivers until catch rates slowed in mid-September with the combination of unseasonable warm temperatures and reduced cooling flows from Dworshak Reservoir.
This week’s change in weather has lowered the waters to prime fishing temperatures.
Many steelhead are moving through the river system. Anglers are catching steelhead on the Clearwater River at least as far up as Orofino. On the Salmon River, anglers are catching steelhead at the confluence of the Salmon and Little Salmon rivers.
“They’re catching fish at the confluence on blue fox spinners,” said Rexann Zimmerman at the Riggins Tackle Shop. “I understand they are fly fishing for them at Salmon, so they are distributed through the system.”
Good fishing reports have come from the mouth of the Grande Ronde River near Heller Bar, and public television fly tyer LeRoy Hyatt said people are catching fish as far up the Grande Ronde as Troy, Ore.
The steelhead run is so big, the Idaho Fish and Game Commission on Wednesday raised the bag, possession and season limit for the fall and spring seasons in the Snake, Salmon and Little Salmon rivers.
Limits for hatchery fish were increased to five a day of which no more than three may be 32 or more inches in length. The possession limit is 15.
Washington also may increase the limit.
Indeed, Washington is requiring anglers to keep the hatchery steelhead they catch on a newly opened section of the Upper Columbia River to reduce competition with wild fish at spawning areas.
The size slots and exclusion of the Clearwater from higher limits is because B-run steelhead are not doing as well as A-run steelhead. B-run steelhead tend to spend two years in the ocean and return mostly to the Clearwater River, although some are bound for the Salmon. A-run steelhead tend to spend just one year in the ocean.
“The one-salt fish are through the roof,” said Larry Barrett, Idaho Department of Fish and Game spokesman. “It’s a consistent pattern we have seen with spring chinook and fall chinook.
“One-salt fish are doing well and for some reason the two-salt fish are not.”
The Idaho Fish and Game Commission is expected to consider raising limits in Idaho soon.
In Washington, the director of the department can raise limits without commission approval.
Barrett said a huge number of steelhead are bound for the upper Salmon River.
“My guess is they are going to migrate normally and these upper Salmon River fish usually kind of shoot on through,” he said. “It’s going to be pretty fun here and on the lower Salmon River just from the sheer numbers.”
Barrett said about 30,000 steelhead will head to Hells Canyon Dam, 40,000 to the Pahsimeroi River and 44,000 to the Sawtooth Hatchery near Stanley.
“That is pretty incredible,” he said. “The numbers are eye-popping right now. It’s a smolt-to-adult return rate of almost 6 percent to Bonneville Dam.”