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Conflicting chinook seasons on Snake put Washington, Idaho goals at odds

Steelhead anglers drift while fishing the lower Clearwater River above the railroad bridge near the confluence of the Snake. (Rich Landers / The Spokesman-Review)
Steelhead anglers drift while fishing the lower Clearwater River above the railroad bridge near the confluence of the Snake. (Rich Landers / The Spokesman-Review)
By Eric Barker The Lewiston Tribune

LEWISTON – Later this month, Idaho and Washington are set to have conflicting fall chinook fishing regulations on the Snake River, a rare occurrence that is contrary to goals of the two states.

The differing regulations arose out of recent changes designed to protect hatchery steelhead returning to the Clearwater River. So few hatchery B-run steelhead are returning this year that fisheries managers from both states and the Nez Perce Tribe deemed it necessary to shut down steelhead fishing.

Last month, Idaho closed steelhead fishing on the Clearwater River and its tributaries and on the Snake River from the state line near Lewiston and Clarkston to the Couse Creek boat ramp south of Asotin. Washington closed the Snake River to steelhead fishing from its mouth near the Tri-Cities to the Couse Creek boat ramp.

Both states left fall chinook fishing open on the Snake River. But the length of the seasons on the section below Couse Creek differ. Washington’s season will close Sunday, but Idaho’s will remain open until Oct. 31.

Washington is closing fall chinook fishing early on that section of the Snake to protect hatchery B-run steelhead that will begin to show up in higher numbers at that time. Those fish are bound for Idaho, and the move and others were made by Washington in solidarity with Idaho’s concern for the low number of steelhead.

Idaho, however, decided it could allow anglers to fish for fall chinook on that section of the Snake River, even as B-run fish begin to arrive. The Clearwater River, however, closes to fall chinook and coho fishing at midnight on Sunday.

By policy, both states normally align regulations on shared waters. For example, they attempt to have the same bag limits and the same opening and closing dates.

“It is certainly not normal for us to be outside of alignment on rules,” said Chris Donley, fish program manager for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife at Spokane. “I was not comfortable with going longer than (Sunday).”

That is partly because he said some anglers can target steelhead while claiming to fish for chinook.

“Anglers can say they are fishing for fall chinook, but in reality they are fishing for steelhead,” Donley said. “There are some unscrupulous folks out there, and I want to make sure we have folks clear of that area on impacting steelhead.”

Donley noted that Washington anglers willing to travel to the lower Columbia River or the Hanford Reach have had the ability to fish for fall chinook for much longer than Idaho anglers.

“Idaho has been waiting for these fish to get back and trying to maximize their ability to harvest a piece of (the run). I think it’s really tough for them to balance opportunity and conservation. It’s tough for all of us to balance opportunity and conservation,” he said.

Joe DuPont, regional fisheries manager for the Idaho Department of Fish and Game at Lewiston, said it’s possible Idaho could close fall chinook fishing earlier than planned on the lower Snake River.

“We don’t have a designated closure date that would coordinate with Washington,” DuPont said. “As the data comes in and we evaluate it, it may cause us to close earlier than we want.”

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