There is good and bad news associated with the latest update of projected steelhead returns to the Columbia and Snake rivers.
Unfortunately the bad outweighs the good, and the good is only good when compared to the bad.
Let’s start with the bad news. Fisheries managers have further reduced their estimate of the total upriver steelhead run size. They now expect only 92,800 steelhead to return at least as far as Bonneville Dam. That is just more than half of the preseason prediction of 182,400.
The return of A-run steelhead that generally spend just one year in the ocean is responsible for the lion’s share of the downgrade. Before the season started, fisheries managers predicted 158,000 A-run fish would climb the ladders at Bonneville. But those fish have largely been missing in action. According to an update the fisheries managers penned on Monday, the A-run is only expected to total 69,500 fish at Bonneville, or about 43 percent of the original estimate.
Fisheries biologists from the Idaho Department of Fish and Game expect about 34,750 A-run fish to make it as far as Lower Granite Dam. That estimate includes 24,500 hatchery fish and 10,300 wild fish.
It’s pretty grim and represents another step backward after last year’s terrible return.
The news is better regarding B-run steelhead. Before the season, fisheries managers expected 24,400 B-run steelhead to return at least as far as Bonneville Dam. That is not a good number. However, those fish are pretty much, but not totally, living up to the preseason forecast.
Fisheries managers have downgraded the B-run forecast to 23,300 — again that would be a low return, but the bigger fish that tend to spend two years at sea before returning to the Clearwater River and some tributaries of the Salmon River appear to be performing much better than A-run fish.
“That is not a number to write home about, but we are pretty close to the forecasted return,” said Alan Byrne, a fisheries biologist for the Idaho Department of Fish and Game at Boise.
Byrne said there is still time for the B-run to live up to the preseason forecast. The next few weeks will tell the story.
“That number could go up. We could reach the forecast if we get another week or so of good dam counts,” he said. “Most of the fish coming over Bonneville right now are Dworshak (Hatchery) fish. They are headed for the Clearwater River and the South Fork of the Clearwater. Once we get to October, sometimes the run just peters out to not much of anything. We will have to see how it goes after we get through September.”
At Lower Granite Dam, Byrne said the forecast calls for a total B-run return of 16,310 fish. That includes 14,900 hatchery fish and 1,820 wild fish.
The wild B-run total would be an increase over last year’s dismal return. According to 2017 B-run estimates using the length of steelhead recorded at dam counting windows, only about 400 wild Bs returned to Idaho last year. However, Byrne said last year’s return was heavily slanted toward B-run fish that spent just one year in the ocean and didn’t make the B-run definition of measuring 78 centimeters or longer. Based on other data collected by Idaho Fish and Game biologists, Bryne said last year’s B-run was likely somewhere just south of 1,000 fish.
Fisheries managers from Northwest states reduced fishing bag limits late last month when it became clear the preseason forecast was way off. Anglers on the Snake, Salmon, Grande Ronde, Imnaha and a short section of the lower Clearwater can keep one hatchery steelhead per day based on the current rules. The normal bag limit for those areas is three hatchery steelhead a day.
Fisheries managers are slated to decide whether the bag limits should stay in place prior to the start of the catch-and-keep season on the Clearwater River upstream of Memorial Bridge at Lewiston. Last year, anglers on the Clearwater and other rivers were required to release steelhead longer than 28 inches for much of the fishing season. Joe DuPont, regional fisheries manager for the department, said he is still watching fish counts at Bonneville and expects to make an announcement about any needed rule changes soon.