Worst-ever start to season as low flows, "the blob," voracious sea lions take toll. Steelhead are setting a record at Lower Granite Dam and it's not a good one.
August 11, 2017
By Eric Barker
The run's performance is so poor that fisheries managers are considering restrictions to upcoming seasons.
The dam about 30 miles west of Clarkston on the Snake River has never seen a worse start to the steelhead run. Between June 1 and Wednesday, only 393 steelhead have been counted climbing the dam's fish ladder. For comparison, the 10-year average is more than 5,100. Last year, when the A run of steelhead collapsed, more than 3,400 steelhead had been counted there in the same time frame.
You have to go back decades to find anything comparable. In 1990, the count through Aug. 7 was 623.
It's not much better at Bonneville Dam on the Columbia River. There, about 30,000 steelhead have been counted. Only 1943 and 1938, the dam's first year of operation, were worse. It was similarly bad in 1941, 1942 and 1944.
"Things are looking really bad," said Alan Byrne, an Idaho Department of Fish and Game biologist at Boise. "So far the run is not coming in as expected, and our forecast was low to begin with. It's likely that if these trends continue we are not going to meet our preseason forecast."
Fisheries managers are poring over the numbers and looking at updated projections for each hatchery in the basin to determine if enough steelhead will return to meet spawning targets. Joe DuPont, regional fisheries manager for the Idaho Department of Fish and Game at Lewiston, said any changes to fishing seasons that begin Sept. 1 will be announced the week of Aug. 21. For now, "everything is on the table," he said.
DuPont and Chris Donley, regional fisheries manager for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife at Spokane, are communicating to make sure any conservation measures taken related to fishing seasons are enforced in both states. Donley said they don't want to have to make changes after the season opens.
"Limits are likely to be affected and, gosh, who knows what else," Donley said. "We are open to any kind of conservation and we are talking to anybody we can about it. We want to put the decision (out there) once and put the right set of rules out there."
Idaho has never closed a steelhead season. In 1995, the B run was so poor that the state implemented catch-and-release-only regulations on the Clearwater River during the fall but allowed some harvest in the spring of 1996.
In 2013, the state shut down harvest on Clearwater River B-run steelhead that were 28 inches or larger but allowed anglers to keep smaller fish.
But the more plentiful A-run supported fishing during those years. Fisheries managers knew this year's A-run fish - those that spend just one-year on average in the ocean - would be poor. But they thought it would be better than last year, when low river flows and high temperatures in 2015 hammered out migrating juveniles. The juveniles that survived the river hit the ocean to find it occupied by "the blob," a massive area of warm water with depleted levels of the tiny creatures young fish feed on.
The results were an almost complete collapse of the 2016 one-ocean component of the run. Because of the poor performance, fisheries managers braced themselves for the effects of the low flows and the blob to take their toll on this year's B run. They predicted a return of only about 7,300, including just 1,100 wild steelhead.
But they expected the A run to start to rebound. The preseason forecast called for a return of 112,100 A-run steelhead to Bonneville Dam, including 33,000 wild fish and 79,100 hatchery fish. Typically about 50 percent of the A run counted at Bonneville head up the Snake River.
As Byrne said, the run to date is not on a trajectory to match the forecast. Protecting wild fish and making sure hatcheries take in enough adults to meet spawning needs will dominate any decision to alter fishing seasons.
"Do we have enough fish to meet broodstock? If that is in question, then you don't want to allow any fishing mortality," Byrne said.
Fisheries managers will give themselves ample time to make that decision. Steelhead season doesn't open on the Snake, Salmon and Grande Ronde rivers until Sept. 1, and fishing often doesn't heat up until later that month. Donley said he is confident measures in place now are protecting the fish as they migrate upriver.
Anglers are talking about the poor run numbers, and many likely will choose to target other species. Idaho will open fall chinook fishing next Friday and Washington is poised to move up its fall chinook opener to match Idaho's.
Fisheries managers are expecting a return of about 27,000 fall chinook to the Snake River.
As in past years, DuPont said, only a fraction of the fish will be available for harvest. He said about 8,000 of the chinook will have their adipose fins clipped, signaling they can be kept by anglers.
But this year, anglers will be allowed to keep jack chinook - those under 24 inches in length - even if the adipose fin isn't clipped. There will be no daily limit on jacks. Anglers will be allowed to keep up to six adipose fin-clipped adults per day.
In past years, the fall chinook season has opened Sept. 1. DuPont said the season is being moved forward on the calendar because the fish will be present by the middle of the month, and the quality of the meat is better in the early part of the season.
Randy Krall, owner of the Lewiston tackle shop Camp, Cabin and Home, said aside from fall chinook many anglers likely will concentrate on species like bass and walleye because of the poor shape of the steelhead runs.
"I think the biggest thing is the interest in walleye," he said. "There is a lot of people interested in walleye and wanting to learn. It's fun how things are shifting gears."
Photo Credit: Josh Mills