HELLER BAR, Washington — Adam Hocking stands on the bow of his 24-foot jet sled and shakes his head.
His clients had a good day fishing for steelhead on the Snake River, but catch-and-release regulations prevented the outfitter from sending them home with any fish.
“We released 13 steelhead, all but two of them were hatchery fish,” he said. “It’s a bummer.”
About 65 miles away, Mike “Poppy” Cummins and Tracy Allen are also bummed. Cummins, owner of the Red Shed Fly Shop in Peck, Idaho, and Allen, a fly-fishing guide on the Clearwater River, are worried about the state of the steelhead run and fear Idaho and Washington will open a harvest season on the sea-run rainbow trout. The two men say the run, particularly the wild B-run fish protected by the Endangered Species Act, can’t withstand the number of anglers a harvest season will attract.
“We were told they were going to keep it catch-and-release to the end of the year and then they change their mind midstream,” Cummins said. “I just think the run is so depressed they don’t need to harvest any fish. There was a lot of people who said we should close the season altogether.”
There is no doubt steelhead numbers are down. They were so low in mid-August that the Idaho Department of Fish and Game pre-emptively closed catch-and-keep seasons, but allowed anglers to fish for steelhead as long as they released them unharmed. At the time, only about 3,300 Idaho-bound hatchery A-run steelhead had been counted passing Bonneville Dam on the Columbia River. With the run historically at its midway point there, biologists calculated as few as 6,600 might return to Idaho — by far the lowest ever recorded.
Within days of the closure, the steelhead run gained steam. More than six weeks later, in excess of 35,000 steelhead have been counted climbing the fish ladder at Lower Granite Dam on their way to Idaho, Washington and Oregon. Joe DuPont, regional fisheries manager for the Idaho Department of Fish and Game at Lewiston, said he expects about 18,000 hatchery A-run steelhead and about 7,400 hatchery B-run steelhead to return to Idaho rivers. The forecast also calls for about 15,000 wild fish, made up of about 13,200 wild A run and 1,800 wild B run.
If the hatchery forecast holds, it will amount to a tripling of the run expectations calculated in the dark days of August. While it is still far below the 10-year average and ranks among some of the poorest runs in the last 25 years, DuPont and other fisheries managers in the region say catch-and-keep fishing can be allowed without jeopardizing hatchery production or threatening protected wild fish.
“There are a fair number of fish out there to be harvested,” he said.
Idaho hatcheries need about 2,700 A-run steelhead for spawning and 1,800 B-run fish. That leaves a harvestable surplus of roughly 15,000 A-run steelhead and about 5,600 B-run fish, including 3,282 that are returning after only one year in the ocean.
With those numbers in mind, Idaho Fish and Game officials proposed opening a harvest season on the Snake and Clearwater rivers and tributaries and the Salmon and Little Salmon rivers, with special rules that require anglers to release all steelhead over 28 inches on the Clearwater River and its tributaries, and on the Snake River north of Couse Creek. The special rules are designed to make sure enough of the bigger B-run fish make it back to hatcheries to meet spawning goals. As always, anglers will be required to release protected wild fish.
The proposal, combined with downturns in steelhead runs over the past two years, is inflaming long-simmering tensions between different fishing groups. Many fly anglers rarely if ever keep steelhead and some are even opposed to the hatchery programs that produce steelhead that compete with wild fish. When news of the harvest proposal surfaced Sept. 29, they quickly organized and let Idaho Fish and Game Commissioner Dan Blanco of Moscow know of their opposition.
By happenstance, Blanco and some other former commissioners attended a gathering of steelhead fly fishermen hosted by Cummins the next day. There, he was presented a petition with more than 50 signatures advocating against a harvest season.
Blanco was impressed and he convinced his fellow commissioners to put off a decision on the harvest proposal for two weeks. Doing so would give biologists more time to monitor the run and give anglers a chance to comment on the proposal. Since then he has heard from anglers for and against opening harvest but said those who want to keep catch-and-release rules have outnumbered those who want to harvest fish.
People like outfitter Hocking expected the proposal to pass easily and were caught off guard when it did not. He still has clients but his bookings are way off. If a harvest season opens, he said his phone will start ringing.
“You would think it would take more signatures to shutdown a fishery,” he said. “It’s so frustrating why such a minority can shutdown a fishery.”
Washington fisheries officials also expected Idaho’s proposal to pass and had pledged to match its rules designed to protect B-run fish. After the delayed vote, Washington is considering moving forward with a catch-and-keep season and may do so.
“We are appreciative of where Idaho is but we don’t think there is a conservation reason to hold off,” said Chris Donley, fish program manager for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife at Spokane.
Steelhead fishing is woven in the fabric of life for many people who live near or along or the Snake River and its tributaries. It’s a cherished pastime for tens of thousands and an important driver of local economies.
Studies commissioned by Idaho Fish and Game in 2003 and 2011 showed salmon and steelhead fishing in the Clearwater Region contributes $60 million to $72 million annually to the economy here. DuPont said steelhead fishing accounts for about 75 percent of it. People like Cummins and Hocking make their living from fishing. But it also brings money to hotels, grocery stores, gas stations and restaurants.
“The steelhead season is the foundation of my business. It is the season that pays the bills,” said Hocking, who added most of his clients want to bring fish home to cook or smoke. “We fish for them five to six months straight.”
For some of the smaller towns in the region like Riggins, Idaho, it’s an economic underpinning. Kerry Brennan is a steelhead guide there who also operates a small tackle shop. He said uncertainty over the season is having a “big-time” effect on the economy.
“It’s not just me as a guide and tackle shop owner,” he said. “It’s the restaurants and motels and gas stations and stores. This time of year especially, the businesses really rely on the steelhead fishery.”
He’d like to see the decision on a harvest season decided river by river.
“There is a lot more people out there than just fly fishermen on the Clearwater and it’s a separate fishery. Those fish that go up the Clearwater are not the fish we are fishing on in the Little Salmon and Lower Salmon. I think Fish and Game should treat it as two separate things and they are kind of lumping it together right now.”
Some outfitters on the Clearwater — Jeff Jarrett of Jarrett’s Guide Service and Evelyn Kaide — say they could support catch-and-release rules even if it means a downturn in business. But Kaide doesn’t want Idaho to go it alone.
“If we can get all the states to agree, that is OK,” she said of sticking with catch-and-release rules. “We don’t like to sit up here and not be able to fish (when Washington anglers are). That is not fair.”
Cummins and Allen also count on steelhead to pay the bills. That is why they say it’s so import to be conservative in the face of such a small run. While DuPont calculates a return of 1,800 wild B-run fish, another forecast calls for as few as 1,200. Allen said none of his clients want to keep fish. Even so, he’s lost 18 fishing trips this fall. He chalks that up to news about how low the run is. He thinks anglers will adjust to catch-and-release rules and that outfitters can help them do it.
“You got to change what you are selling,” he said.
They also want to ensure the wild fish they cherish will survive well into the future. If a season is approved, they said bait shouldn’t be allowed and the state should require anglers to leave wild fish in the water. Idaho differs from Washington and Oregon in that it allows anglers to lift wild fish out of the water so people can take pictures before releasing them. DuPont said he is confident that fishing won’t have a negative effect on wild fish and rules that allow bait and out-of-water picture taking can be retained.
Blanco said despite his push to delay he doesn’t know how he will vote when the commission reconvenes to take action on the proposal.
“No decision has been made. My mind is open. I’m not captive to any particular group.”