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Worst Steelhead Returns in History

Worst Steelhead Returns in History

(Josh Bergan photo)

West Coast fly fishers are braced for what could be the worst fall steelhead season ever. As of Tuesday, Aug. 31, only 35,106 steelhead had been counted at Bonneville Dam on the Columbia River, and just 780 at Lower Granite Dam on the Snake River. The five-year average on that date is 67,973 and 2,679, respectively.

“One could argue, at least for this date, this is the worst steelhead run past the Bonneville area ever,” said Joe DuPont, regional fisheries manager for the Idaho Department of Fish & Game.

In response to the lowest runs in recorded history, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW) closed the John Day, Umatilla, and Walla Walla rivers to steelhead angling for the remainder of the year, and closed the Deschutes River for at least the month of September. The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) closed the Snake River from its mouth to Clarkston to all steelhead fishing. Both ODFW and WDFW were negotiating with Idaho Fish & Game (IDFG) to ensure portions of the Snake River with shared jurisdictions had equivalent closures.

As of Aug. 31, Idaho had made no closures, but proposed a reduced bag limit from three hatchery steelhead per day to one per day on the Snake, Salmon, and Little Salmon rivers. Wild steelhead are listed under the Endangered Species Act and cannot be killed.

“Emergency action needs to be taken immediately," said Rich Simms, a board member of the Wild Steelhead Coalition and Fly Fisherman’s 2017 Conservationist of the Year. “More importantly, we need to shift our focus toward truly healing our watersheds and fisheries, not just always wringing one more season out and hoping for the best. We’ve seen where that gets us. The fishing industry’s silence has been disappointing. We need more leadership from the businesses built on these dangerously low fish stocks.

“This isn’t about blaming others or pointing fingers, but a larger call for accountability from our agencies, elected leaders, and industry. We need everyone who cares about these incredible fish to start pounding on the tables.  Unfortunately, for now we need to be fishing less and making management changes to give the fish a break, while we all work to make the bigger changes required, such as more cold water refuge, breaching the Lower Snake River dams, dealing with predation and bycatch, reforming failing hatchery practices, and restoring habitat everywhere we can.”

On British Columbia’s Skeena River, the outlook was similarly bad. In August, the Canadian government opened its borders for recreational travel from the U.S., but bad news from the Skeena Tyee Test Fishery could result in closures. The test fishery has been used by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans for decades to predict returns of Pacific salmon on the Skeena, but steelheaders also use it as a predictor for the coming fall steelhead season. As of Aug. 25, the steelhead cumulative index was 19.95, the lowest ever recorded on that date. The previous 5-year average was 93.6 on that date, so the run is barely 20 percent of “normal.”

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