Check the fish counts at Washington state's Lower Granite Dam and the steelhead run looks depressing, but at nearly three times the size of last year’s run there is at least a hint of silver lining.
Look downstream and the silver lining is swallowed by dark brooding storm clouds. You might even spot a funnel cloud.
The 2017 year-to-date totals for steelhead at Bonneville Dam overtook the 2018 numbers recently. That is not good news.
Last year was the one of the worst ever for steelhead bound for tributaries of the Columbia River above Bonneville Dam including the Snake, Salmon and Clearwater rivers in Idaho and the Grande Ronde in Washington and Oregon. This year is likely to be worse.
Anglers and fisheries managers weren’t expecting a big rebound this fall but they hoped, at the very least, to see a modest increase in steelhead numbers compared to the 2017 run. But barring a late surge of A-run steelhead or a better-than-expected performance from the B-run, this steelhead run could be the worst in decades.
Fisheries officials at the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife shut down steelhead fishing on the Columbia River recently. That move was taken after an official downgrade of the steelhead forecast. Prior to the season, state, tribal and federal fisheries managers estimated a combined return of A-run and B-run steelhead to hit 182,000. More recently that estimate was downgraded to about 110,000 and then trimmed again to 96,500. That number includes a projected return of 69,000 adipose fin-clipped hatchery steelhead and 27,500 wild and some unclipped hatchery steelhead.
“It’s close to a 50 percent reduction,” said Alan Byrne, Idaho Fish and Game’s anadromous fish manager at Boise.
If the prediction holds, it would be the lowest steelhead return since 1978 and the first time since then the run has failed to register 100,000 steelhead at Bonneville. For perspective, last year’s meager run was just more than 113,000 there.
Through Sept. 6, 64,500 steelhead had been counted at Bonneville Dam. Last year at the same time, the count was more than 77,300.
Fisheries managers are mulling what actions they might take. In the face of similar numbers last fall, some rivers were closed to catch-and-keep steelhead fishing and size restrictions were adopted on others to protect B-run fish. Some of those restrictions were eased following a late surge by A-run fish.
Joe DuPont, regional fisheries manager for the Idaho Department of Fish and Game at Lewiston, said he wants to give the run a little more time before taking any action. So far this year, about 2,200 steelhead have passed Lower Granite Dam, and there is only one harvest season open in Idaho — a short section of the lower river below Memorial Bridge at Lewiston. That will change on Saturday when the Snake and Salmon rivers open to catch-and-keep fishing.
In order to reduce harvest, on Aug. 30 Idaho Fish and Game announced it was temporarily reducing the daily bag limit to one steelhead starting Sept. 3. The lower bag limit applies in the Clearwater River from the mouth to Memorial Bridge, North Fork of the Clearwater River, Snake River, Salmon River and Little Salmon River.
The bag limit reduction is set to expire on Oct. 14.
“We are looking out for our brood stock and our natural fish populations," said Chris Sullivan, Fish and Game’s salmon and steelhead harvest manager at Boise. "We need to make sure our impacts to both of those via any steelhead fishery are manageable. We are considering options to reduce those impacts. It’s important to note we still have some time left in the run. Things could change, and our outlooks could change, in a matter of days if the run improves.”
Washington fisheries officials already took action to close steelhead fishing on the Columbia River from its mouth to the bridge over U.S. Highway 395 near Pasco, Washington. They are gathering more information before implementing season changes on the Snake River and its tributaries. Steelhead retention opened on the Snake River in Washington on June 1, though few people fish for them until September.
Chris Donley, fish program manager for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife at Spokane, said he is coordinating with other managers in his department and colleagues in Oregon and Idaho about possible moves.
Right now Donley said there are too few fish in the river for anglers to make an impact on hatchery brood stock collection or on the number of wild fish bound for spawning grounds.
“There really aren’t any fish there,” he said. “Guys can go out and scratch around but ... .”
Donley isn’t banking on a repeat of last fall when A-run steelhead numbers improved late in the season.
“I think a lot of people are hoping for that. I think banking on a late surge is probably a pretty bad idea,” he said. “We basically just completely backed off of steelhead downriver because we don’t think there is a late surge coming.”
Another poor steelhead run is likely to have economic ripples for businesses that depend on anglers spending money on fishing trips. For Randy Krall, owner of Camp, Cabin and Home in Lewiston, the fickleness of salmon and steelhead runs over the last few years has prompted a change in his business strategy. Krall is slowly eliminating his inventory of fishing tackle and concentrating more on items like high end barbecues, coolers, home heating stoves and propane accessories.
“You just can’t afford to stock the merchandise when there are no seasons,” he said. “Our business has never been better. Our business is having a record year. But tackle doesn’t even play a part of it anymore.”
He is more worried about the economic fallout in small towns like Orofino, Riggins, Salmon and Kamiah.
“They really depend on tourism from the fish stuff,” Krall said.
Dale Wheeler at the Red Shed Fly Shop at Peck said fisheries managers should consider more measures to protect wild steelhead such as not allowing anglers to use bait on the Clearwater River or making it a catch-and-release only fishery until the runs recover.
“I wish I had the magic fix, but I don’t,” Wheeler said.