Idaho Fish and Game commissioners are scheduled to vote on a proposal to open a fall chinook fishing season on the Clearwater River during their meeting Thursday at Nampa.
Commissioners also will consider fall chinook seasons on the Salmon and Snake rivers and changes to steelhead fishing bag limits and regulations on the Snake, Salmon and Clearwater rivers.
Idaho Fish and Game officials have forwarded a two-tiered fall chinook season proposal for the Clearwater River. The first part would implement a fall chinook season on the river from its mouth to Memorial Bridge at Lewiston, similar to seasons approved over the past several years. The second would open a fall chinook season for the first time on the river from Memorial Bridge to the mouth of the South Fork of the Clearwater River at Kooskia and on the North Fork Clearwater River from its mouth to Dworshak Dam.
The section from the mouth to Memorial Bridge would be open seven days a week starting Saturday. Fall chinook fishing from Memorial Bridge to the mouth of the South Fork Clearwater River and on the North Fork Clearwater would be allowed Thursdays through Sundays if and when the state receives a permit from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, perhaps as soon as the first week of September.
The commission will also vote on opening fall chinook seasons starting Saturday on the Snake River from the Idaho-Washington state line to Hells Canyon Dam and on the Salmon River from its mouth to the Twin Bridges boat ramp south of White Bird.
Prior to the state receiving its permit, anglers will be restricted to harvesting adult fall chinook with intact adipose fins or jacks with or without adipose fins from the Snake, Salmon and the short section of the Clearwater River from its mouth to Memorial Bridge. The daily bag limit will be six adults per day and there will be no limit on jacks.
Once the agency receives the permit from NOAA, anglers would be allowed to harvest adult salmon with or without intact adipose fins from all river sections open to fall chinook fishing. The bag limit will be six adult fall chinook per day with a maximum of one having an intact adipose fin. There will be no season limit on adult fall chinook but anglers must record harvest on their salmon permits.
On steelhead, the agency will consider slashing the daily bag limit statewide to one hatchery fish per day. The commission will also consider requiring anglers to release any steelhead 28 inches in length or longer on the Clearwater River and its tributaries and the Snake River from the Idaho-Washington state line to Couse Creek Boat Ramp south of Asotin. The proposed length restrictions and bag limit changes are designed to ensure hatcheries on the Snake, Salmon and Clearwater rivers receive enough adults to meet spawning goals.
The bag limit and length changes would take effect Saturday on the Clearwater River from its mouth to Memorial Bridge and on the rest of the Clearwater River and its tributaries Oct. 15. The rules would take effect on the Salmon and Snake rivers when the harvest season opens Sept. 1.
Joe DuPont, regional fisheries manager for the Idaho Department of Fish and Game at Lewiston, said the fall chinook season on the Clearwater River is being proposed as an experiment. Data collected from the season will be fed to a working group the agency plans to convene this winter to help shape future fall chinook seasons on the Clearwater River.
The season would give anglers a new opportunity to harvest fall chinook but it also threatens to change the catch-and-release steelhead season on the Clearwater River, which runs from July 1 to Oct. 14. Many steelhead anglers are fond of the catch-and-release season because it is often less crowded than the harvest season that starts Oct. 15. Opening the river to fall chinook fishing could change that.
DuPont said the agency developed its proposed experimental season with fishing open four days a week on most of the Clearwater River based on comments gathered from a public meeting in Lewiston earlier this month, from comments collected on its website and from discussions with the Nez Perce Tribe.
“The Nez Perce Tribe indicated they would like some day closures to give them the opportunity to gillnet,” he said.
Fall chinook in the Clearwater River are from a hatchery program operated by the tribe.
At the public meeting, many anglers were enthusiastic about the potential for a new fishing opportunity on the Clearwater. But several fly anglers voiced opposition to the proposal.
Zach Williams, a former fly fishing guide on the Clearwater, said fly anglers are worried both about crowding and how additional fishing pressure may impact wild B-run steelhead protected as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.
“It’s a time when the angling experience is quieter for all anglers, not just fly anglers,” he said. “It’s just a more peaceful time.”
Williams sent commissioners a petition signed by more than 200 anglers saying they are opposed to the proposed fishery and information indicating participants in the steelhead catch-and-release season spend money in the region.
Dan Blanco, the commissioner representing the Clearwater Region, said he is trying to balance desires of those who are eager to fish for fall chinook and those who want to preserve the traditional catch-and-release steelhead season.
“The way I’m looking at it, it’s very much an experiment just to see how this will work, if this will work as well as we hope,” he said.
DuPont said the season will give members of the working group valuable information on the degree to which there are conflicts between catch-and-release steelhead anglers and those fishing for fall chinook.
He said the working group will use the results in its deliberations about how fall chinook and steelhead fishing should be balanced in the future. It’s possible that additional experimental seasons could be held in future years, he said.
One possible confounding issues is the low return of steelhead to the Clearwater River this fall. When steelhead numbers are down, participation in the fishery is often down as well, which may skew results.
“It could be a big confounding factor,” he said.
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