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Clearwater River could see fall chinook fishing, if Idaho is awarded permits

David Moershel of Spokane holds a fall chinook he caught while angling with salmon fishing guide Dave Grove on the Columbia River on Sept. 8, 2014. (Rich Landers / The Spokesman-Review)
David Moershel of Spokane holds a fall chinook he caught while angling with salmon fishing guide Dave Grove on the Columbia River on Sept. 8, 2014. (Rich Landers / The Spokesman-Review)
By Eric Barker The Lewiston Tribune

LEWISTON – The Clearwater River could see a fall chinook fishery in the coming months, and Idaho Fish and Game officials want public input to help shape its structure.

The salmon season would provide a new opportunity for anglers but also overlap the Clearwater’s popular catch-and-release steelhead season. Agency officials are mulling what, if any, steps should be taken to balance the two, said Joe DuPont, regional fisheries manager at Lewiston.

The agency is holding a meeting on the potential season at 5:30 p.m. Tuesday at its office in Lewiston. DuPont said a fall chinook fishery could be held on the Clearwater River this year, if the state receives a permit from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration that allows anglers to catch fish with both clipped and intact adipose fins. The permit could be issued by September and would allow the harvest of unmarked fall chinook on a sliding scale, with more harvest in years with good returns and less to none in poor years.

The Nez Perce Tribe is also expecting a permit from NOAA fisheries that would give its members access to returning adult fall chinook on the Clearwater River through a variety of fishing methods, including hook-and-line, dip nets and gill nets.

The Clearwater River is home to hatchery and wild fall chinook listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. Only about 15% of the hatchery fall chinook there have their adipose fins clipped, marking them being from hatcheries and available to anglers for harvest.

Idaho and Washington already allow hatchery fall chinook fishing in the Snake River, and Idaho’s season includes short sections of the lower Clearwater and lower Salmon rivers. But most of the Clearwater is closed to fall chinook fishing, despite what has been robust populations of the fish in recent years.

During much of the past decade, fall chinook have been one of the better performing anadromous fish runs that return to the Snake River and its tributaries. In some years, such as 2010, 2013, 2014 and 2015, the run set records or near records for recent times. That is largely because of a combination of a hatchery program by the Nez Perce Tribe and good ocean conditions.

Returns for fall chinook, like other species of salmon and steelhead, have been declining over the past three years, in large part because of bad ocean conditions. Last year, 16,000 adult fall chinook and more than 4,700 jacks returned to the Snake River, compared to a high of about 60,000 in 2014. This year, fisheries managers are expecting about 15,500 adult fall chinook to return to the Snake River and its tributaries.

Steelhead returns have been particularly bad of late, and returns of B-run steelhead to the Clearwater River this fall are expected to be dramatically down again. Idaho fisheries managers forecast that only 5,600 B-run steelhead are expected to return at least as far as Lower Granite Dam on the Snake River this fall, and just 665 of those will be wild fish. The agency is expecting 55,100 A-run steelhead, including 16,680 wild fish, to return to Lower Granite Dam.

DuPont said the department has been thinking about how to balance potential fall chinook fishing on the Clearwater with the catch-and-release steelhead season for the past few years. Informal polling at past public meetings has shown about 70% of anglers are in favor of a fall chinook season on the Clearwater River. Even so, DuPont acknowledges there are strong feelings, and some steelheaders don’t want the river opened to fall chinook fishing.

The catch-and-release steelhead season is cherished by many anglers, especially fly fishermen, because it often is less crowded, with fewer boats than the catch-and-keep season that starts Oct. 15.

DuPont said the agency previously suggested convening a working group to propose possible fall chinook season structures. He said if a permit is issued by September, it would give the agency the opportunity to hold an initial fall chinook fishing season and gather data on how the two seasons work together.

At Tuesday’s meeting, DuPont said he will ask anglers how such a pilot season should be structured.

“We want to know from the public, how should we manage it to not only provide some more (fishing) opportunity, but to provide us with information to feed this (future) working group information on what influence a fall chinook fishery might have on steelhead fishing,” he said.

In a typical year, fall chinook fishing would likely start sometime in August or September, and wrap up in late October or early November. Steelhead fishing on the Clearwater starts with the July 1 opening of catch-and-release season, followed by the Oct. 15 catch-and-keep season, which runs through late spring. The busiest time tends to be from about October through about Thanksgiving.

DuPont said there are several ways to approach a pilot season. For example, the season could include anything from wide-open fall chinook fishing with liberal limits, or it could be restricted to certain days of the week or to certain stretches of the river.

“We want to explore a bunch of different options,” he said. “It could be days of the week, it could be river reaches, it could be just to open the whole Clearwater.”

Many anglers have been pushing the agency to open the river. Toby Wyatt, owner of Reel Time Fishing in Clarkston, said it makes sense to allow people to fish for and catch fall chinook, given that most of them originate from hatcheries.

“They spend millions and millions on those fall chinook, yet we aren’t able to harvest them. It’s like growing a killer crop of wheat and letting it all die,” he said. “It’s time for us to harvest those fish. They are there for harvest, and it would be good for everybody.”

Some steelheaders who favor fly fishing gear fear fall chinook fishing will ruin the steelhead catch-and-release fishing by attracting large crowds.

“It will destroy it, plain and simple,” said Steve Pettit, a retired Idaho Fish and Game biologist and avid fly fisherman. “Every single fly run will have three or four fall chinook guide boats racing up and down it dribbling bait. The nonconsumptive (steelhead) fishery, when it was first set up, was set up to give the fly fishers a chance. I’m pretty much convinced they can’t coexist.”

Tracy Allen, a fly fishing outfitter on the Clearwater, has similar reservations. He said salmon anglers, in their zeal to catch fish, tend to be less conscientious of others.

“They are there to catch a fish. They don’t care about your proximity to them,” Allen said. “It’s just a different mentality of fishing. It’s a meat fishing mentality.”

Wyatt said he understands those fears, but thinks they are overblown. In fact, he said fall chinook fishing is likely to take pressure off the best steelhead water.

“The first couple of hours in the morning I will be in the deeper holes targeting chinook, when I used to be going head to head with the bank anglers for steelhead,” he said. “In the long run, they will be happy. It’s going to take some pressure off of the steelhead. The deeper holes are loaded with fall chinook, and the steelhead aren’t in those deep holes – the chinook chase them out. The steelhead are in the riffles and runs.”

Joseph Oatman, deputy program manager and harvest manager for the tribe’s Department of Fisheries Resources Management, said the state and tribe have collaborated on the development of a fall chinook fishery in the Clearwater River. But he said both still need to meet to discuss how their respective fisheries would work so that tribal members have equal access to the fish.

He noted tribal fishermen are often outnumbered by sport anglers.

“The tribe is responsible for producing these fish at Nez Perce Tribal Hatchery, so we do want to benefit from these returns,” he said. “We just want to make sure we have access to the river to take our share as well.”

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