Steelhead run starts slow, but better than last year

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Photo by IAN McDONALD An angler hoists a Clearwater River steelhead taken on a fly rod. Although it’s still early in the season, the number of steelhead heading to Idaho so far this summer have been low, but better than last year.

This year’s summer steelhead run is starting off slow, but it is nearly threefold better than the 2017 run, which was abysmal.

Fisheries officials say the Snake River could be in for another poor showing of A-run steelhead, but there is at least some evidence the return of the bigger and more coveted B-run fish may be decent.

It’s of course very early, and a lot could change, said Joe DuPont, fisheries manager of the Idaho Department of Fish and Game in Lewiston. But at this point, two things are a safe bet.

“It’s not great,” DuPont said of the run to date. “It’s not like last year, which was the worst ever.”

Through Tuesday, more than 31,000 steelhead had been counted at Bonneville Dam on the Columbia River. That is well ahead of the nearly 20,000 steelhead counted during the same time period a year ago, but well behind the 10-year average of more than 93,000.

It’s much the same story at Lower Granite Dam on the Snake River, where nearly 1,100 steelhead were counted between June 1 and Tuesday. Last year, the count was just shy of 300, but the 10-year average is 3,241.

DuPont said detections of hatchery A-run steelhead at Bonneville Dam show a slow start to the season. It ranks as the third lowest since 2009, when the number of hatchery fish implanted with passive integrated transponder tags, known as PIT tags, was expanded. Only last year and 2015 saw lower returns by this time.

If the run follows average run timing, the early counts would signal another poor return of A-run fish. If it follows last year’s late run timing, it could be “excellent.”

DuPont is predicting it’s more likely to be poor than excellent.

It’s still too early to make predictions about the Idaho-bound hatchery B-run based on dam counts or PIT tag detections. However, DuPont said fisheries managers often look to the previous year’s return of B-run fish that spent just one year in the ocean instead of the more normal two years to predict the run. That metric would indicate the B-run may rebound.

DuPont said about 5,000 one-ocean B-run steelhead returned to Idaho last year. That ranks as the second highest since 2009.

Using a simple formula that each one-ocean fish of the previous year will lead to six two-ocean fish in the current year, the Clearwater basin could see a hatchery B-run return of 30,000. That sounds good, but don’t hold your breath.

“If you use that data, it suggests we are going to have an above-average adult return this year. I don’t really buy that,” he said. “I’m skeptical because we had a poor chinook return this year, which would suggest there are some things going on in the ocean that would affect the return.”

However, he noted a return of more than 4,000 one-ocean B-run steelhead in one year has never led to a poor run the following year. He also said steelhead and chinook go to different places in the ocean, so it’s possible steelhead experienced better survival.

But he said it’s also possible ocean conditions were so poor a year ago that something in the life history of the fish stored in their genes triggered them to return early.

“That is a legitimate argument,” he said.

At this point, even amid the uncertainty, DuPont said he believes the run will be strong enough to avoid harvest restrictions.

“I do feel the return will be large enough that we won’t need to implement rule restriction to assure we meet brood needs. As always, only time will tell.”

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