Steelhead counts lower than average in Snake River

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Tribune/Pete Caster Steelhead anglers test the waters on the Clearwater River east of Lewiston on Thursday morning.

The return of steelhead to the Snake River and its tributaries continues to fall short of what was an already low preseason forecast.

Idaho Fish and Game commissioners will meet in Nampa this week to consider adjusting bag limits for the steelhead harvest seasons that open on the Snake and Salmon rivers Sept. 1 and the Clearwater River on Oct. 15.

“This is one of the lowest cumulative counts to date in recent memory,” said Alan Byrne, a fisheries biologist for the Idaho Department of Fish and Game at Boise.

The agency begins counting steelhead at Snake and Columbia river dams July 1. By last week, 37,466 steelhead had been counted at Bonneville Dam on the Columbia River where the 10-year average is 132,275. This year’s count is among the lowest in the past four decades, second only to the 2017 count of 32,237.

By last week, 1,422 steelhead had been counted at Lower Granite Dam on the Snake River compared to a 10-year average of 4,884. It is barely ahead of last year’s count of 1,408 at this time but much more than 2017’s count of only 399.

But the pace is behind what was expected when the agency made its preseason prediction. Fisheries managers had expected a season total of 60,700 steelhead to return past Lower Granite Dam this year. The bulk of those fish, about 55,100 are expected to be A-run steelhead that return earlier in the year. Only 5,600 are expected to be the larger B-run fish that return in September and October.

Byrne said if the A-run doesn’t increase, the predictions will fall short.

On the bright side, he said both wild A-run steelhead and hatchery A-run steelhead that haven’t had their adipose fins clipped are on pace to meet the preseason forecast. Unfortunately for anglers, the only adipose-clipped A-run fish are available for harvest.

The Technical Advisory Committee, a collection of regional fisheries managers that makes the forecasts, hasn’t yet upgraded its prediction. Byrne said they will likely make a new prediction within two weeks.

“The next two weeks are going to be real key to whether these hatchery fish start showing up and make the run somewhat reasonable. My fear is if we don’t get these hatchery fish that come early, that typically get classified as A-index, ... it doesn’t look good because we are not expecting a lot of (B-run fish) to show up in September. We are expecting most of this year’s run to be made up of fish that would be classified as A-index.”

In anticipation of the low forecasts for steelhead, Oregon and Washington shut down steelhead harvest on the Columbia River. Oregon also closed the mouth of the Deschutes River to steelhead fishing. Steelhead bound for the Snake River often linger at the mouth of the Deschutes River where the water is cooler.

Chris Donley, fish program managers for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife at Spokane, said the steelhead closure on the Columbia should mean better fishing on the Snake River and its tributaries.

“The one positive thing when we back off our fisheries in the mainstream (Columbia) passage up to those areas goes higher because. They are not getting caught anywhere else,” he said.

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Barker may be contacted at ebarker@lmtribune.com or at 208-848-2273.

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