Idaho’s once famous wild Clearwater and Salmon River steelhead in a state of collapse

9th of Apr 2018

Fish & Game Still Allowing Angling. Time to Shut ‘Er Down Boys!

APRIL 2, 2018 ~ THE CONSERVATION ANGLER, David Moskowitz

Idaho, still famous for potatoes, used to be famous for big wild steelhead. How big? The biggest in the lower 48 States.

How famous? Ted Trueblood among others became famous fishing for what are surely the most famous freshwater gamefish and perhaps the most famous of all fish not named Tarpon, Sailfish or Marlin.

Before the construction of four dams on the lower Snake River (1962 thru 1975) and Dworshak Dam (1972) on the Clearwater’s North Fork, the Idaho Department of Fish and Game (IDFG) estimates that approximately 40,000 wild B-run steelhead returned to their natal streams in the Clearwater Basin. Don’t believe it? Well in 1962, nearly 43,200 wild B-run steelhead were counted as they crossed a smaller dam (long gone) just three miles upstream from the river’s confluence with the Snake River in Lewiston.

How bad have things become?

The 2017-2018 run will total fewer than 400 fish to the Clearwater and its undammed tributaries, a decline from the early 1960s of 99.9%.

How accurate is the count?

The experts have been counting fish at Bonneville Dam since the 1940s, and their official count of wild B-run fish over Bonneville Dam in 2017 is 751 (July through November). As of early February, 362 of those fish crossed Lower Granite Dam. Past research demonstrates that approximately 95% of the total run over Lower Granite Dam is normally complete by December 31, meaning that Idaho can expect a total 2017-18 wild B-run steelhead run over Lower Granite of likely no more than 381 fish. The majority of that group of wild B-run steelhead will migrate up the Clearwater (about two-thirds) while about one-third of the wild B-run fish that cross Lower Granite will migrate to the Salmon River. As a result, we can reliably estimate that the total 2017-2018 Clearwater River wild B-run steelhead will be in the neighborhood of 254 fish.

These few prized wild B-run steelhead have been joined by a modest number of A-run wild steelhead (steelhead smaller than 30 inches) and a modest number of hatchery fish that returned in numbers large enough to calm the nerves of hatchery managers who were initially worried that the steelhead return would not meet hatchery broodstock needs. Despite easing the hatchery manager’s concerns, there does not appear to be any goals for wild steelhead escapement nor wild egg deposition objectives for the individual rivers to which the wild steelhead will return.

Furthering the gauntlet wild fish face are the sport fisheries that Washington, Oregon and Idaho permitted and then opened wide to a three-hatchery fish daily limit once it became clear that the hatchery fish would return in large enough numbers that hatchery managers would meet their egg-take goals. It just so happens that sport fishing effort results in higher encounters with wild fish even though they are outnumbered by their hatchery cousins.

What does that mean?

That means that a steelhead angler hoping to catch only hatchery keepers will typically encounter twice as many wild fish as hatchery fish, even though there are fewer wild fish in the rivers. Wild steelhead are simply more aggressive and better biters than the hatchery product.

What happens when an angler hooks those wild fish? Approximately 10 percent will die directly from being caught and released. And when many wild fish will be caught, even though there are fewer of them, you can assume that 25 of the wild B-run steelhead will not survive the encounter. This could mean that only 229 wild B-run steelhead will survive to spawn in the Clearwater River, and of the 130 wild B-runs that make it to the Salmon River, up to 13 more will not survive angling encounters, leaving 117 wild B-run steelhead to make it to their spawning grounds.

At the same time, while some angling encounters may not be lethal, research shows that some of the wild steelhead caught in this fishery may be less successful in their efforts to spawn successfully, further reducing the overall wild fish productivity.

The bottom line: likely fewer than 400 wild B-run Clearwater steelhead will return past Lower Granite Dam for the 2017-18 run year, and anglers will likely reduce the number of wild steelhead on the spawning grounds.

Why are the three states allowing continued fishing on any steelhead at all – all the way through April 31?

Washington, Oregon and Idaho would rather sell licenses to fish for hatchery steelhead than achieve their mission to protect and maintain wild fish populations.

This story is familiar in Idaho. Why?

Snake River sockeye salmon were the first salmon listed under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) in 1990. By about 1994, the famous and singular “Lonesome Larry” returned to Redfish Lake. Despite twenty years of very intensive and expensive salmon recovery efforts (including an “emergency room-style” hatchery), Idaho’s sockeye are returning to their high mountain lake largely because of human intervention. In 2017, only 228 sockeye crossed Lower Granite Dam, a number barely eclipsed by the likely 2017-2018 wild B-run Clearwater steelhead return.

It is past time to stop fishing for steelhead late in the season and in staging and spawning areas when the runs are well below historic and even recent abundance levels – until real changes are made in our harvest, hatchery, water withdrawal and hydropower practices in the Columbia and Snake Rivers.

Hopefully the few wild steelhead returning to Idaho and Oregon rivers will be successful on the spawning beds in their natal rivers in 2018. It is too bad we barely gave them that chance.

Thanks and credit to Steve Pettit and Linwood Laughy for their advice and analysis from their home pools.