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Coho season set; steelhead harvest tabled

During the 2015 season, Orofino fishing guide Jim McCarthy relishes the moment after netting two Clearwater River steelhead for clients. (Rich Landers / The Spokesman-Review)
During the 2015 season, Orofino fishing guide Jim McCarthy relishes the moment after netting two Clearwater River steelhead for clients. (Rich Landers / The Spokesman-Review)

Idaho Fish and Game commissioners approved a coho fishing season but delayed a hot-topic decision on restoring steelhead harvest seasons during a telephone meeting Monday.

The rejected proposal, released by fisheries managers on Friday, would have allowed anglers to harvest hatchery-bred steelhead while requiring them to release larger B-run fish bound for the Clearwater River and its tributaries.

Steelhead harvest was closed statewide on Aug. 15 in favor of catch-and-release fishing because the run was performing so poorly that Idaho Fish and Game managers feared too few would return to hatcheries to meet spawning goals.

Numbers of Idaho-bound hatchery steelhead, while still low, have improved over the past six weeks and state fisheries managers now believe the run can sustain limited harvest without jeopardizing hatchery spawning levels. But commissioners hesitated and said in a 6-0 vote they want to give anglers more time to comment on the proposal, and they want fisheries managers to continue to monitor steelhead passage at Lower Granite Dam on the Snake River. Through Sunday, 13,415 steelhead had been counted at the dam. The 10-year average is 87,634.

“We are going to wait two weeks and revisit the issue and make a judgment,” said commissioner Dan Blanco of Moscow.

Blanco said he heard from scores of anglers opposed to restoring harvest.

“Despite the brief time frame the public had to react, there was a lot of reaction. I got a petition with 52 signatures on it, and there was a whole raft of emails sent to the commission over this,” he said. “I think people decided they were going to do what they could in the time available, and I would say they were very effective.”

The commissioner attended the annual Spey Clave – a gathering of fly fishermen – on Saturday at Lenore, where he said participants strongly favored keeping catch-and-release rules. Many fly anglers routinely practice catch-and-release fishing methods even when harvest is allowed.

Washington fisheries managers, who also closed steelhead harvest on the Snake River last month to protect Idaho-bound fish, were poised to open harvest in concert with Idaho. Chris Donley, fish program manager for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife in Spokane, was surprised the decision was delayed but said Washington will wait for Idaho before adjusting its harvest ban.

The proposal calls for a daily bag limit of two hatchery steelhead per day on the Snake, Clearwater, Salmon and Little Salmon rivers. Those fishing on the Clearwater River and its tributaries, and on the Snake River north of Couse Creek, would have to release steelhead that measure more than 28 inches.

Fishing outfitter Toby Wyatt of Reel Time Fishing said he is pleased steelhead harvest may still be approved and likes that the proposal calls for a two-fish daily bag limit. In 2013, another year with a poor steelhead return to the Clearwater, anglers also had to release steelhead longer than 28 inches, but they were only allowed to keep one smaller fish. This year, fisheries managers are expecting a surplus of smaller steelhead to the Clearwater.

“The one-and-done rule was really a problem,” said Wyatt. “If a guy caught one on the first couple of drifts that was a keeper, he had to sit there and watch his buddies fish all day.”

Joe DuPont, regional fisheries manager for the Idaho Department of Fish and Game in Lewiston, said the agency likely will solicit public comments on the proposal on its website and schedule a public meeting in Lewiston next week.

Coho fishing will open on the Clearwater River from its mouth to the mouth of Clear Creek near Kooskia and on the North Fork Clearwater below Dworshak Dam on Oct. 7, with a daily bag limit of two fish per day.