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Steelhead forecast sets up as worst in decades

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)

The Snake River and its tributaries will see one of the lowest returns of steelhead in decades, according to a preseason forecast compiled by regional fisheries managers.

Alan Byrne of the Idaho Department of Fish and Game at Lewiston said about 59,700 steelhead will return above Lower Granite Dam this summer and fall. The 10-year average for steelhead returns to the dam between July 1 and Oct. 31 is 151,687. If accurate, it will be the lowest return since 1998, when 58,353 steelhead were counted.

Last year, a poor year for steelhead, more than 87,000 steelhead were counted at Lower Granite during those dates and it included almost no A-run steelhead that had spent just one year in the ocean.

Those fish, called one-salts by biologists for the time they spend in the ocean, were apparently hammered by a combination of warm water and low flows during their out-migration in 2015 and poor conditions in the Pacific Ocean.

Because they fared so poorly, fish managers expect this year’s return of B-run steelhead that generally spend two years in the ocean, will be dismal, with about 7,300 making it to Bonneville Dam and just 5,475 to Lower Granite. The low return could lead to fishing restrictions.

Fisheries managers are expecting about 119,000 steelhead, a combination of A-run and B-run fish, to return at least as far as Bonneville Dam, the first dam returning adults encounter on the Columbia River. If that forecast holds true, it will be the lowest return since 1980, when the return was just more than 115,000.

Last year the return was 171,806. The 10-year average is almost 330,000.