Idaho will slash steelhead bag limits on the Clearwater River and its tributaries this fall in an attempt to make sure hatcheries meet spawning goals despite a dismal return of B-run fish.
Anglers will be allowed to keep just one hatchery steelhead per day, but will be restricted further when fishing between the river’s mouth and the Orofino bridge, where they will only be allowed to keep jacks — steelhead 28 inches long or shorter.
The normal bag limit on the Clearwater River and its north, south and middle forks, which open to catch-and-keep fishing Tuesday, is three per day. But this run will fall well short of normal.
About 5,800 large B-run steelhead are expected to return past Lower Granite Dam this fall, just a quarter of the preseason forecast. But only about 2,000 of those will be bound for Dworshak National Fish Hatchery, where nearly all Clearwater basin hatchery steelhead are collected for spawning or brood stock. The hatchery has a brood stock goal of 2,000 adults.
“You can see with 2,000 fish (returning), there is just not any room,” said Joe DuPont, regional fisheries manager for the Idaho Department of Fish and Game at Lewiston. “We are convinced (without the changes) we would shoot way over and cut into the brood, so something had to be done.”
Some steelhead are trapped at Kooskia National Fish Hatchery, and some are collected on the South Fork of the Clearwater River, but not enough to alleviate pressure on the Dworshak-bound fish, he said.
The Clearwater is the primary destination for B-run steelhead, which are coveted by anglers for their size and strength. Most B-run fish spend two or three years in the ocean, compared to an average of one year at sea for A-run steelhead. That extra year or two allows them to grow large on the ocean’s bounty.
But the ocean can be fickle. It has not been kind to steelhead and spring chinook of late, but it has blessed fall chinook. The Columbia and Snake rivers are enjoying record runs of fall chinook but saw poor returns of spring and summer chinook earlier this year.
The return of A-run steelhead is below average and the B-run is as low as it has been since the mid- to early 1990s.
In 1994, only 4,500 B-run steelhead returned to the basin. The department did not lower bag limits that year and also did not meet its hatchery collection goals. In 1995, another poor return year, the department did not allow any harvest and instead opted for a catch-and-release season. It easily made brood stock goals.
With that history in mind and the grim prediction for this year’s run, some anglers welcomed the reduced harvest opportunities this fall in the hopes of better runs in the future.
“It’s the only responsible thing we can do,” said Randy Krall of Camp, Cabin and Home, a Lewiston tackle shop. “I totally support what Joe DuPont and those guys do. I’m a big fan of our fisheries managers; I think they do the best job they can.”
There is a bit of good news that will provide some harvest this year and could signal a much improved return next year — there are an estimated 1,300 jack steelhead returning to the basin. Without those fish, there might not be any harvest below Orofino.
“If that one-ocean run (B-run jacks) was really small, we probably would have just had catch-and-release, but there is an opportunity to catch those fish and not impact the brood,” DuPont said.
An above-average return of jacks usually portends a healthy return of adults the following year.
“It suggests next year’s run should be back up to what we have enjoyed in the past 10 years or so,” DuPont said.
Fisheries managers are at a loss to explain why the fall chinook run is so robust while steelhead, along with spring and summer chinook, performed so poorly. They suspect the ocean explains both.
Dworshak Hatchery had some problems a few years ago when about 1 million juvenile fish were lost to the disease IHN. But that would only affect this year’s three-ocean fish, which is usually a small portion of the run, and not those that were smolts two years ago. Spring flows were high when most of the fish returning this year left the basin for the ocean two years ago, which generally leads to high survival during the journey.
“The out migration conditions were good. They were very good,” said Becky Johnson, a fisheries biologist for the Nez Perce Tribe, which co-manages Dworshak Hatchery with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
“My best guess is it is the ocean.”
Biologists believe fall chinook go to different places in the ocean than steelhead and spring chinook, and they know they enter the ocean at different times. They speculate conditions were good for fall chinook but poor for the other stocks.
When the return of B-run steelhead is poor, it can affect harvest of fall chinook by tribal anglers on the Columbia River. Fishermen from the Nez Perce, Umatilla, Yakama and Warm Springs tribes fish for fall chinook in the Columbia. They are allowed to catch a small portion of the B-run but must stop fishing once they do.
As of this week, tribal anglers had caught 1,438 B-run fish, or 47 more than allocated, and the ongoing platform and hook-and-line season was scheduled to end last week.
Members of the Nez Perce Tribe also fish for steelhead in the Clearwater River and its North Fork. Johnson didn’t know if the tribe plans to alter bag limits for its fishing, which generally doesn’t take place until the spring.