LEWISTON – Change likely is coming to the Clearwater River after nearly four decades under the same general steelhead fishing season regime.
Last week, the Idaho Fish and Game Commission directed fisheries managers at the Idaho Department of Fish and Game to collect public comments on a pair of proposals that would shake up the status quo. The agency soon will seek public comment on two potential season structures developed by its Clearwater Fisheries Work Group.
The 13-member group was formed by the agency and tasked with coming up with proposals to reduce conflict on the river that has increased with the addition of a fall chinook fishing season that overlaps the river’s popular catch-and-release steelhead fishing season.
For years, most of the Clearwater River has opened to catch-and-release steelhead fishing on July 1 and continued through Oct. 14. The river’s catch-and-keep season opens Oct. 15, runs through the end of the year and is followed immediately by a spring catch-and-keep steelhead fishing season.
Many anglers have grown to cherish the early catch-and-release season for its more mellow feel. Although popular, it generally attracts fewer anglers than the harvest season.
Over the past two years, Idaho has held a fall chinook harvest season on the Clearwater that overlapped the catch-and-release steelhead season. That has led to more fishing pressure on the river.
Under both proposals, fall chinook season would open Aug. 18 on the Clearwater River and its Middle and South forks. It would run through Oct. 31 below Memorial Bridge at Lewiston and on the Middle and South Forks. It would run through Oct. 14 between Memorial Bridge and the Orofino Bridge. The North Fork would open Sept. 1 and run through Oct. 31. Fishing would be allowed seven days per week in all open sections.
“It provides about the most amount of opportunity you can for fall chinook in the Clearwater based on the various restrictions we have to follow,” said Joe DuPont, regional fisheries manager for the department.
DuPont set up the group but allowed its members free rein to come up with their own proposals. The group started with several and narrowed them down to two. DuPont was pleased with the spirit of cooperation and compromise the anglers adopted and said they appeared to be influenced by angler satisfaction surveys and other data collected by the agency in recent years.
In part, that data showed angler satisfaction remained high for steelheaders last year, even as the fall chinook season was open. The department also established that steelhead and fall chinook anglers often occupy different parts of the river.
DuPont is in the process of developing a public comment campaign and questionnaire that likely will be unveiled later this month, but the agency doesn’t yet have an open public comment period on the proposals.
The steelhead seasons in both proposals are new and differ from each other.
More catch and release
The group’s first proposal would extend the steelhead catch-and-release season by 10 days, or from July 1 through Oct. 24 on the Clearwater River above Memorial Bridge and on the Middle and South forks of the Clearwater. Harvest season would open on those sections starting Oct. 25 and carry a two-fish bag limit of which only one could be longer than 28 inches.
The Clearwater River from its mouth to Memorial Bridge would be open for catch-and-release fishing July 1 to Aug. 31. Harvest wouldn’t be allowed below the bridge until Sept. 1, a month later than current regulations. It would stay open through December.
The North Fork would be closed to steelhead fishing in July and August, but be open to harvest Sept. 1 through December, with the same two-fish limit with a maximum of one over-28-inches bag limit.
The proposed season would give catch-and-release anglers more time to fish for big B-run steelhead that start to return in late September and early October.
That is the same time many A-run steelhead bound for other destinations in the Snake River Basin begin to leave the Clearwater. Those wandering fish duck into the cold-running Clearwater in July and August, when the Snake River’s water temperature can reach the low- to mid-70s.
The proposal also would allow more B-run fish to accumulate in the river in October, making for good fishing during the harvest opener, and its size-restricted bag limit would help keep catch rates high later into the season.
Funky and fresh
The second proposal is more of a departure from today’s regulations and would institute catch-and-release and harvest seasons on the two distinct sets of steelhead that spend time in the Clearwater River: the early A-run fish that arrive in July, August and early September and start to leave mid-to-late September and B-run steelhead that arrive mid-to- late September and into the fall.
The river would be open to catch-and-release fishing below Memorial Bridge from July 1-Aug. 31. Harvest season below the bridge would start Sept. 1 and run through December.
The Clearwater above Memorial Bridge, the Middle Fork and South Fork would have catch-and-release seasons July 1-Sept 9. A harvest season would open Sept. 10 and run through Oct 14.
On Oct. 15, the Clearwater above Memorial Bridge, the Middle Fork and South Fork would return to catch-and-release fishing, which would last through Nov. 9. Harvest season would resume Nov. 10 and run through December, with a two-fish bag limit with no size restrictions.
The North Fork Clearwater would be closed to steelhead fishing in July and August. Harvest with a two-fish bag limit would be allowed Sept. 1 and run through December.
This season structure would allow more harvest on the A-run fish at a time when their flesh is in the best condition and allow steelhead harvest at the same time harvest is allowed on fall chinook and coho, giving catch-and-keep anglers more diversity of opportunity. Its return to catch-and-release fishing from roughly Oct. 15 to Nov. 9 would allow numbers of B-run fish to build up and for those fish to distribute farther up the river, which could make for an exciting second opening of the harvest season.
Although the overall catch-and-release season would be shortened by nine days, it would offer 26 days of no-harvest fishing at a time when lots of big B-run fish would be in the river.
But it would be more complicated and make it tougher to adapt for anglers who travel from other areas.
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