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Sports >  Outdoors

Steelhead fishing on Clearwater River shifts to catch-and-release

Two anglers fish for steelhead on the Clearwater River near Orofino, Idaho.  (Caitlin Beesley/Lewiston Tribune)
Two anglers fish for steelhead on the Clearwater River near Orofino, Idaho. (Caitlin Beesley/Lewiston Tribune)
By Eric Barker The Lewiston Tribune

LEWISTON – The steelhead fishing season on much of the Clearwater River switched to catch-and-release status Saturday, a 180-degree pivot from its longtime structure and one that could pay dividends to anglers who like to keep fish and those who prefer to let them go.

For decades, the bulk of the Clearwater River opened to catch-and-release fishing in July and switched to catch-and-keep on Oct. 15. But late last year, the Idaho Fish and Game Commission approved the season revamp proposed by the Idaho Department of Fish and Game and vetted by anglers.

Under the new regime, anglers were allowed to begin harvesting hatchery steelhead from the Clearwater River above Memorial Bridge at Lewiston and its South and Middle forks on Sept. 10. The change allowed them to bag fish when meat quality is at its highest and to target hatchery steelhead that detour into the Clearwater River before dropping out and heading up the Snake River.

Joe DuPont, regional fisheries manager for the department at Lewiston, said harvest was light early in the season when it appeared most Snake River-bound hatchery steelhead stayed in the confluence of the Snake and Clearwater rivers – an area that has always opened Sept. 1. The number of steelhead taken home by anglers has picked up in recent weeks as B-run fish destined for Dworshak and Clearwater hatcheries began to arrive.

Fisheries managers predict as many as 28,000 hatchery B-run steelhead will return to the Clearwater this fall, a vast improvement over recent runs. DuPont said about half of them have crossed Lower Granite Dam, west of Lewiston. The rest will be arriving over the next several weeks.

But as soon as those fish swim upstream of Memorial Bridge where the catch-and-release area begins, they will be off limits to harvest. That is where the new season structure is expected to pay dividends to catch-and-release anglers.

“I think there is going to be a lot of fish moving into the river and that should provide for some tremendous catch rates,” he said.

But those looking to land fish for the barbecue and smoker won’t have to wait long, and the four-week break from the harvest season could set the table for a hot late-fall season. DuPont said steelhead fishing often starts to drop off in November, as anglers harvest available hatchery fish. But under the new system, those 14,000 B-run steelhead that will be arriving over the next few weeks will add to fish already in the river. In addition, they will distribute themselves between Lewiston and the Middle Fork of the Clearwater.

“It should allow steelhead numbers to build up and when harvest season reopens Nov. 10, these fish should be spread out and anglers will be able to spread out and catch rates should be really good,” he said.

“This should provide for a really good second harvest opener.”

New structure overview

Under the new rules, the steelhead season on the Clearwater River and its Middle and South forks started with catch-and-release fishing July 1. The first harvest season started Sept. 10 and ran through Friday. The second catch-and-release period runs through Nov. 9.

Harvest season resumes Nov. 10 and runs through the end of the year.

But things are different on two river sections. The Clearwater River from its mouth to Memorial Bridge at Lewiston and on the North Fork of the Clearwater River below Dworshak Dam at Orofino opened to harvest Sept. 1 and will stay open to harvest through the end of the year.

None of the Clearwater rule changes affects fishing season dates on the Snake River.

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