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Steelhead, Chinook Seasons Look Grim

by Eric Barker
Lewiston Tribune, April 3, 2020

Low returns expected to mean limited fishing on area rivers

Snake River Steelhead Triggers Early Warning Indicator, NOAA is trying to ignore that fact. Washington anglers may get a narrow window to fish for chinook salmon on the Snake River this spring but should brace themselves for another fall of steelhead restrictions, including the possibility of closures in some areas.

The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife is in the midst of its salmon fishing season-setting process. Instead of holding meetings on run projections and season proposals, the agency recorded a presentation and posted it on YouTube to comply with Gov. Jay Inslee's stay-home coronavirus orders.

Chris Donley, fish program manager for the department at Spokane, said about 56,400 spring chinook bound for the Snake River are forecast to return at least as far as the mouth of the Columbia River. Fisheries managers from the Idaho Department of Fish and Game expect about 37,133 of those to make it at least as far as Lower Granite Dam on the Snake River.

The low returns are expected to be just large enough to allow fishing two days a week, likely Saturdays and Sundays, for one to three weeks at Little Goose Dam and near Clarkston, Donley said, with a daily bag limit of six hatchery salmon but no more than one adult fish.

"It's just like 'Groundhog Day,' you know," he said, referring to the movie in which the characters lived the same day over and over. "Last year, we fished two weekends, maybe three. It was great fishing; it just didn't last long. We basically have the same amount of opportunity this year."

He said the state is expected to be able to harvest about 400 adult spring chinook from the Snake River if the run forecast proves accurate.

Idaho has already set its spring chinook salmon seasons. They will feature fishing on parts of the Clearwater River two days a week and fishing on the lower Salmon and Little Salmon rivers four days a week.

Fall fisheries

Donley didn't mince words when detailing another poor forecast for Snake and Columbia river steelhead.

"As a whole, if you are a steelhead angler in the Columbia Basin, you should expect that 2020 will not be normal from a fishery perspective," he said. "There will be areas closed to fishing for steelhead, and there will be abbreviated limits. As we see how adults return into the system, we will shape fisheries that can fit in opportunity, with conservation driving the fishery."

Fisheries managers from Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Columbia River Native American Tribes are expecting about 85,900 A-run steelhead to return at least as far as Bonneville Dam on the Columbia River, and 9,600 B-run steelhead. Those numbers are low but represent a slight improvement over the 2019 run. Last year, the A-run tallied just 70,000 at Bonneville, and only 6,000 B-run steelhead were counted there.

This fall, Idaho Fish and Game officials expect a return of 42,950 A-run steelhead at Lower Granite Dam and just 6,720 B-run fish. Fisheries biologist Alan Byrne, at Boise, said if the forecast is accurate it would be similar to the 2018 run and register as the seventh lowest on record. Last year was the second lowest recorded, and 2018 was the sixth lowest.

Donley said fisheries managers are likely going to be concerned with both hatchery and wild fish escapement -- the number of fish that survive to spawn -- in some areas. He said anglers on the Columbia River should expect rolling closures timed to protect migrating steelhead and more drastic measures at the mouths of cold flowing rivers where steelhead often pause during their upstream migration.

"There will be areas in the mainstem Columbia that remain closed for the entirety of the run, from July through March, including night closures," he said. "Tributary mouths like Drano Lake will be closed, similar to rolling block closures.

"For steelhead fisheries on the Snake River, anglers should expect in some areas (for) there to be no open fishing for steelhead and, in others, abbreviated seasons, meaning timing or limits can be adjusted based on adult abundance."

In an interview with the Tribune, Donley said he sometimes feels like Debbie Downer, the excessively negative "Saturday Night Live" character of some years back. But poor ocean conditions, heaped on top of all the other perils the fish face during their lives, have made for a growing string of poor returns. Last year's return of hatchery B-run steelhead was so dismal that fishing was closed on the Clearwater and lower Snake rivers during the fall.

Lance Hebdon, Idaho Fish and Game salmon and steelhead manager said Idaho steelhead seasons this fall are likely to include reduced bag limits.

"I don't think we are going to get into a situation as dire as we were in (last year), but we will wait until we get actual information before we go too far down that road."

Despite the bad news, Donley said he remains optimistic that ocean conditions will reverse and salmon and steelhead runs will improve in the coming years.

"I have a hard time believing all the good runs are behind us," he said. "I know the ocean is changing and things are getting volatile, but volatility can mean it can get really good too. But probably not this year."

However he said fall chinook could be a bright spot in an otherwise bummer of a year. Fisheries agencies are predicting a return of 233,400 fall chinook to the Snake and Columbia rivers upstream of Bonneville Dam. Of those, about 29,800 will be destined for the Snake River and most of the rest for the Hanford Reach on the Columbia.

"They will be a bright spot. There is going to be enough that we are all going to fish for those," he said.

The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife presentation can be viewed here and comments can be made here.

Eric Barker
Steelhead, Chinook Seasons Look Grim
Lewiston Tribune, April 3, 2020

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