The Clearwater Snake Steelhead Derby will be held Nov. 23-30 despite the closure of a large section of the Clearwater River to harvest of steelhead more than 28 inches long.
Officials with the steelhead derby committee at the Lewis Clark Valley Chamber of Commerce are working with the Idaho Department of Fish and Game to ensure the annual fishing contest doesn’t unduly target fish that an emergency rule change is designed to protect.
When the catch-and-keep steelhead season opened Tuesday, the Clearwater River below Orofino and its North Fork were closed to harvest of hatchery steelhead longer than 28 inches. The rule is designed to protect the 2,000 large B-run steelhead predicted to return to Dworshak National Fish Hatchery.
Virtually every one of the fish will be needed to meet spawning goals.
The Clearwater is a destination for derby anglers and other fishermen trying to catch B-run fish renowned for their size and strength. But while this year’s run of fall chinook is setting records, B-run steelhead numbers are dismally low.
Joe DuPont, Idaho Fish and Game regional fisheries manager in Lewiston, said derby officials have agreed to make surederby participants know of the rule change and aren’t tempted to cheat.
“When you have a derby with a fairly large award for the largest fish, there is going to be a tendency for somebody to want to keep a big fish somebody would catch on the Clearwater even though it is illegal,” he said.
Derby officials will cover the rule change at the opening ceremony and also have it printed in registration packets.
As always, they plan to announce the biggest fish caught each day. This year, they will include where the fish was caught to help derby participants police each other.
Fisheries monitors and conservation officers from the department will have a presence on the Clearwater during the derby.
“I was fairly confident with all of those things in place that illegal harvest should be minimal,” DuPont said.
“I feel I was able to assure (DuPont) there will be a lot of self policing and we will be reminding (anglers) of the rules and be very clear with the restrictions,” said Chamber President Kristin Kemak.
According to the latest forecast, a total of 9,440 hatchery steelhead from Clearwater River hatcheries will return past Lower Granite Dam this fall. But only 7,888 will be adipose fin-clipped fish that have spent two or three years in the ocean and just about 2,000 of them will be bound for Dworshak, where nearly all hatchery fish are collected for spawning.
The hatchery has a goal of collecting 2,000 fish each year, leaving none available for harvest this year.
“The only way we feel confident that we can get the necessary fish to Dworshak Hatchery is to restrict all harvest of these two- and three-ocean fish,” DuPont said.
The regulations are likely to reduce the number of anglers fishing the Clearwater this fall and will hit steelhead outfitters in the pocket book. Toby Wyatt, owner of Reel Time Fishing, said the restrictions will be painful but he understands the reason they were adopted.
“It’s going to hurt a lot of us, that is for sure, but you have to do what you have to do. You have to make sure you have enough fish to make the next crop.”
Despite the poor run, both he and DuPont predicted there will still be quality fishing on the river, even if anglers have to release most of their catch. Steve Pettit, a retired Idaho Fish and Game fisheries biologist who lives at Cherrylane, is worried about the B-run, particularly the federally protected wild fish. He said years of hatchery practices combined with the increasing popularity of the fishery in the Clearwater River has taken its toll on the fish.
Runs over the past 13 years have been mostly robust due largely to positive ocean conditions in the North Pacific Ocean. However, conditions in the ocean typically run in decade-long streaks between good and bad known as the Pacific decadal oscillation. He fears the fishery has entered a period of poor ocean productivity and both the wild and hatchery runs are on a dangerous slide.
“We are probably going to have another decade where the North Pacific productivity ebbs and goes downhill,” Pettit said.
“If there is any issue at all with juvenile migration and you have a poor ocean on top of it, you are going to see much poorer returns back to the Snake River.”
Subscribe to the sports newsletter
Get the day’s top sports headlines and breaking news delivered to your inbox by subscribing here.