HELLER BAR, Idaho – Adam Hocking stands on the bow of his 24-foot jet sled and shakes his head.
His clients had a good day fishing for steelhead on the Snake River, but catch-and-release regulations prevented the outfitter from sending them home with any fish.
“We released 13 steelhead, all but two of them were hatchery fish,” he said. “It’s a bummer.”
Approximately 65 miles away, Mike “Poppy” Cummins and Tracy Allen are also bummed. Cummins, owner of the Red Shed Fly Shop at Peck, and Allen, a fly fishing guide on the Clearwater River, are worried about the state of the steelhead run and fear Idaho and Washington will open a harvest season on the sea-run rainbow trout. The two men say the run, particularly the wild B-run fish protected by the Endangered Species Act, can’t withstand the number of anglers a harvest season will attract.
Indeed, Washington decided on Wednesday to allow steelhead harvest starting Sunday. Idaho will make a decision on opening steelhead to limited harvest on Friday.
“We were told they were going to keep it catch-and-release to the end of the year and then they change their mind midstream,” Cummins said. “I just think the run is so depressed they don’t need to harvest any fish. There was a lot of people who said we should close the season altogether.”
Steelhead numbers were so low in mid-August that the Idaho Department of Fish and Game preemptively closed catch-and-keep seasons, but allowed anglers to fish for steelhead as long as they released them unharmed.
Within days of the closure, the steelhead run gained steam. More than six weeks later, in excess of 35,000 steelhead have been counted climbing the fish ladder at Lower Granite Dam on their way to Idaho, Washington and Oregon. Joe DuPont, regional fisheries manager for the Idaho Department of Fish and Game at Lewiston, said he expects about 18,000 hatchery A-run steelhead and about 7,400 hatchery B-run steelhead to return to Idaho rivers. The forecast also calls for about 15,000 wild fish, made up of about 13,200 wild A run and 1,800 wild B run.
If the hatchery forecast holds, it will amount to a tripling of the run expectations calculated in the dark days of August. While it is still far below the 10-year average and ranks among some of the poorest runs in the last 25 years, DuPont and other fisheries managers in the region say catch-and-keep fishing can be allowed without jeopardizing hatchery production or threatening protected wild fish.
Minus what hatcheries need, there should be a harvestable surplus of roughly 15,000 A-run steelhead and about 5,600 B-run fish.
Idaho Fish and Game officials proposed opening a harvest season on the Snake and Clearwater rivers and tributaries and the Salmon and Little Salmon rivers, with special rules that require anglers to release all steelhead over 28 inches on the Clearwater River and its tributaries, and on the Snake River north of Couse Creek.
The proposal, combined with downturns in steelhead runs over the past two years, is inflaming long-simmering tensions between fishing groups. Many fly anglers rarely if ever keep steelhead and some are even opposed to the hatchery programs that produce steelhead that compete with wild fish. When news of the harvest proposal surfaced Sept. 29, they organized opposition.
Idaho Fish and Game Commissioner Dan Blanco, of Moscow, was presented a petition with more than 50 signatures opposing a harvest season.
Blanco convinced his fellow commissioners to put off a decision on the harvest proposal for two weeks. Doing so would give biologists more time to monitor the run and give anglers a chance to comment on the proposal.
Hocking expected the proposal to pass easily and were caught off guard when it did not. He still has clients but his bookings are way off. If a harvest season opens, he said his phone will start ringing.
“You would think it would take more signatures to shutdown a fishery,” he said.
Washington fisheries officials acted first with their Wednesday announcement.
“We are appreciative of where Idaho is but we don’t think there is a conservation reason to hold off,” said Chris Donley, fish program manager for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife at Spokane.
Studies commissioned by Idaho Fish and Game in 2003 and 2011 showed salmon and steelhead fishing in the Clearwater Region contributes $60 million to $72 million annually to the economy here. DuPont said steelhead fishing accounts for about 75 percent of it. People like Cummins and Hocking make their living from fishing. But it also brings money to hotels, grocery stores, gas stations and restaurants.
“The steelhead season is the foundation of my business. It is the season that pays the bills,” said Hocking, who added that most of his clients want to bring fish home to cook or smoke. “We fish for them five to six months straight.”
For some of the smaller towns in the region like Riggins, it’s an economic underpinning. Kerry Brennan is a steelhead guide there who also operates a small tackle shop. He said uncertainty over the season is having a “big-time” effect on the economy.
“It’s not just me as a guide and tackle shop owner,” he said. “It’s the restaurants and motels and gas stations and stores. This time of year especially, the businesses really rely on the steelhead fishery.”
He’d like to see the decision on a harvest season decided river by river.
“There is a lot more people out there than just fly fishermen on the Clearwater and it’s a separate fishery. Those fish that go up the Clearwater are not the fish we are fishing on in the Little Salmon and Lower Salmon. I think Fish and Game should treat it as two separate things and they are kind of lumping it together right now.”
Blanco said despite his push to delay he doesn’t know how he will vote on Friday when the commission reconvenes to take action on the proposal.
“No decision has been made. My mind is open. I’m not captive to any particular group.”