If you are planning to fish for steelhead this year on the Salmon, Snake, or Clearwater rivers, you’d best be up on your catch-and-release technique, because Idaho Department of Fish and Game has decided returns are so low, anglers may not harvest fish. According to Joe Dupont, Fisheries Manager for the Clearwater Region of IDFG, you would have to go all the way back over 40 years to find a steelhead count this low.
So why is this happening?
Like many things, there’s not just one answer. This is the lowest count of hatchery steelhead since the Snake River dams have gone in, and clearly these large concrete structures have had an impact on both steelhead and salmon.
While hatcheries were supposed to mitigate for the loss of wild steelhead, they have struggled over the years to replace what were once large numbers of native fish. Wild fish don’t congregate in huge numbers either as smolt or as returning spawners.
In hatcheries, thousands of fish are grouped together, and despite the best scientific practices, disease has a way of infiltrating these abnormal conditions, although that doesn’t seem the case this year.
A big influence on smolt survival is the amount of water released from dams. The faster the ride, the better survival as juveniles can avoid predation from other fish and birds because the higher flow makes it harder to see the smolts.
But dams and hatcheries aren’t the full story.
Ocean conditions are key to healthy returns, and, according to Dupont, “steelies just disappear mid-ocean, and we really don’t know what goes on then.”
Dupont cites food availability in ocean waters, temperature, and, of course, predation as all having an impact on the number of steelhead returning to Idaho. Our state has plenty of great habitat for spawning and rearing of smolts, but if the fish can’t get back from the ocean, all the habitat in the world doesn’t matter.
Unlike salmon, steelhead, which are ocean-going rainbow trout, can spawn multiple years. Most hatchery steelhead return to Idaho to spawn after a year in the ocean, and these fish typically run around 8 to 11 pounds but can go a bit heavier.
Fish that stay in the ocean multiple years before returning to spawn are usually larger and can be over 20 pounds.
Two runs of steelhead come to Idaho. A–run fish typically are found in the Snake and Salmon rivers early in the season and run 4 to 6 pounds. B–run fish return to the Clearwater and Salmon rivers after at least two years spent in salt water: these fish will run 10 to 13 pounds.
Occasionally, fish spend three years in the ocean, and these steelhead can weigh upward of 20 pounds. The largest Idaho steelhead was caught in 1973 in the Clearwater River and weighed in at 30 pounds, 2 ounces.
The current catch–and–release regulations apply to the A–run fish, but Dupont said the B run isn’t expected to be much better.
The great thing about steelhead fishing is the length of the season, especially during a good run. According to IDFG, the Clearwater River has good fishing from August to December, the Snake is often best September and October, and the Salmon River doesn’t really start to see steelhead until October. Late winter and very early spring can offer good fishing upriver from Salmon, Idaho and in the Little Salmon River near Riggins and the South Fork of the Clearwater.
I’ve spent time in February near Salmon, chasing steelhead in snow showers with ice coating the edges of the river and my fly line, and I still did well. On a sunny day, my husband and I have been known to put the drift boat in near Riggins and enjoy fishing in December when there’s not enough snow on the mountains to ski.
February through April you will find avid steelhead anglers plying the waters of the Little Salmon River in the narrow canyon between New Meadows and Riggins. The fish have a tendency to pile up below the falls at the head of the canyon, and veterans as well as beginners have a good chance of getting into steelies there.
“February and March on the South Fork of the Clearwater can really be fun,” said Dave Cadwallader, retired Regional Director of IDFG in Lewiston. “There have been days when we’ve landed 20 to 30 fish.”
Cadwallader also understands the reasoning behind a no–harvest season versus shutting the fishery down completely. “If people can’t fish, they lose engagement and concern for the fishery over time, so having a catch–and–release season makes certain sense, despite the issue of mortality.”
Avid angler Bob Mirasole said he’s had luck by the town bridge in Orofino on the Clearwater as well as on water near Lenore. He said fishing can be good on the North Fork of the Clearwater below Dworshak Dam and by the bridge near Peck. Typically, Mirasole finds decent fishing for steelhead at the confluence of the Snake and Clearwater, just outside Lewiston.
Bur no matter where you fish this year, given the low return, proper catch–and–release techniques are critical.
Gary Lane, owner of Wapiti River Guides in Riggins, is adamant about releasing fish with the least amount of trauma possible.
“Research shows having a fish out of water for more than 12 seconds increases mortality, so we almost always release fish while they are in the net,” he explained. “Anglers can lean over the side of the boat and remove a single, barbless hook fairly easily,” Lane said.
“Try to keep from touching the fish as much as you can in order to retain the protective slime on the body. If you want a photo, lean over the boat and take one with the fish in the water in the net,” he added. “The integrity of our wild fish run is key, so if you get one, handle it very carefully!”
So there you have it, anglers. While steelhead season will be different this year, you know that even the worst day of fishing has got to be better than sitting inside!