Idaho sporting goods shops for hundreds of miles have been emptied of rods and reels, every bit of sinker lead and florescent spinners after a chinook surplus brought back salmon fishing - for at least one summer.
Merchants along the rivers where surplus chinook were released have enjoyed the unexpected bonanza, the first since the mid-1970s when general seasons disappeared with the runs. The Boise River is speckled with thousands of anglers trying to land several hundred chinook set free there.
One angler’s rapid-fire decision in a Riggins store illustrates the fishing fever, said Mitch Sanchotena, executive coordinator of Idaho Steelhead and Salmon Unlimited.
“He had broken his rod fishing, but the only one they had left was several hundred dollars, far more than what he or I would spend normally,” Sanchotena said. “The guy hemmed and hawed, but then shelled out the money, saying, ‘I have to. It’s salmon season.”’
That season is due to a rare combination these days - lots of migrating fish and plenty of water. Sanchotena warns it could be the last season before the turn of the century, and the 1999 return of this year’s smolts could signal whether the endangered chinook runs can ever be restored.
“Our grandfathers counted salmon in the millions, but we’re going to end the century counting them in the hundreds,” he said.
The Idaho Department of Fish and Game is tallying the number of salmon tags sold this season and the financial boost for merchants.
But Don Reading of Ben Johnson Associates, a Boise consulting firm, maintains the current banner sales of gasoline, tackle, beer and other necessities back up his findings of last fall - and then some.
Based on angling levels in the 1950s, restored salmon fishing would produce about $60 million in economic activity each year and directly create about 1,000 jobs, Reading estimated.
“We’ve gotten richer and more populous and the ability to fish has been diminished,” he said. “A good steelhead or salmon run is a rare resource that people are going to pay like crazy to participate in.”
And this summer’s mobs included only sportsmen who could respond to the Idaho Fish and Game Commission’s spur-of-the-moment decision to allow angling. Those who must make long-range plans to fish were left out.
“We say steelhead and salmon won’t replace other activities in central Idaho, but Riggins is a classic example that they can fill the void in these valleys which have been plagued the last decade and a half by mining slumps and timber cutbacks,” Sanchotena said.
More than 3,500 salmon were caught this year. The best fishing was on the Little Salmon River near Riggins. Anglers hooked almost 2,300 there.
“It was crazy. There was no way we could have prepared for it,” said Rexann Zimmerman of Hook, Line and Sinker. “They were out of merchandise from Boise to Spokane, for lead and hooks. The fishermen were breaking rods and going through the gears in the reels. It was wonderful.”
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