Tight lines: Fish and Game opens steelhead harvest

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    Courtesy photoSteelhead guide Jeremy Sabus holds a B-run steelhead caught last week on the Clearwater River and released.

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    Courtesy photoSteelhead guide Jeremy Sabus holds a B-run steelhead caught last week on the Clearwater River and released.

Evelyn Kaide’s gardenia is doing well, thank you.

She has raised the flowering plant for almost a decade, nurturing it outside in a pot through the summer, but by October, she often brings it indoors.

So far this year, thanks to warm autumn weather along the Clearwater River in Orofino, where she operates The Guide Shop, the gardenia remains an outside plant.

“It’s about 50 or 60 degrees out there,” said Kaide, who has for 25 years run the shop that specializes in getting anglers on top of Clearwater River steelhead.

Although it gets busy in the fall — with fishers, guides and locals filling the shop along Idaho’s Highway 12 outside town, swapping tales and looking for insights and advice — the autumn steelhead season has long been her favorite time of year on the river.

Because of an early season closure for anglers who hook and keep the red-sided, sea-run fish, however, the latest steelhead season outlook seemed at first to be bittersweet.

It’s getting better.

The Idaho Department of Fish and Game announced Friday that Idaho anglers can catch and keep hatchery steelhead beginning this week. The opener coincides with the regular annual catch-and-keep opener on the Clearwater’s main stem.

The announcement was an about-face for the department that earlier called for closing the catch-and-keep season because of the small number of steelhead returning to Idaho from the Pacific Ocean via the Columbia River.

“I had a lot of cancellations,” Kaide said.

Anglers who booked trips opted out after learning of the poor returns of native and hatchery fish, and the closure of the catch-and-keep season that usually starts as early as Sept. 1 on some parts of the Clearwater and the Snake, Salmon and Little Salmon rivers.

Those rivers usually get A-run fish that have stayed in the ocean one year. Clearwater anglers more likely chase B-run fish, which swim upriver later in the season, are bigger, and have stayed in the ocean for two years.

Although the harvest season on the main stem opened on schedule, it calls for a limited take. The announcement wasn’t without clamor.

The Fish and Game Commission approved harvesting fish despite protests from many anglers who sought to preserve the fishery given the poor returns.

Fish and Game reduced the traditional daily bag limit of adipose-clipped hatchery steelhead from three to two fish, and anglers on the Clearwater and lower Snake rivers can only keep fish smaller than 28 inches.

“The size restriction on the lower Snake and Clearwater rivers protects the larger B-run steelhead from overharvest and ensures enough will return to replenish hatcheries,” Roger Phillips of Fish and Game said.

The department initially closed the harvest season in August after fish counts showed a poor return. Managers now expect about 52,000 steelhead, including 15,000 wild fish, to cross Lower Granite Dam about 30 miles downstream from Lewiston, Phillips said.

Biologists initially feared that the run was insufficient to meet broodstock needs, according to the department. The early, low returns were chalked up as a later-than-usual run, however. Despite an increasing number of returning fish over the last couple months, the run is still expected to be the lowest since 2008.

Kaide isn’t quibbling about the return, or news of the opener.

Until this week, her clients were catch-and-release anglers who were catching steelhead on fly gear.

“They weren’t getting limits, but five a day for a drift boat, that’s pretty good for steelhead,” Kaide said.

Her phone is starting to ring again, and the shop is starting to fill as anglers look to book steelhead trips.

That means her brief respite to enjoy the fall colors and the peacefulness of her Clearwater River surroundings is over.

She’s OK with that.

“I’m loving it really,” she said.

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