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Limited springer season likely, as forecast calls for harvest share of fewer than 1,000 in the Clearwater River Basin

In this Oct. 19, 2016, photo, a chinook salmon, below, and a steelhead, above, move through the fish ladder at the Lower Granite Dam on the Snake River in Washington state. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)
In this Oct. 19, 2016, photo, a chinook salmon, below, and a steelhead, above, move through the fish ladder at the Lower Granite Dam on the Snake River in Washington state. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)
By Eric Barker The Lewiston Tribune

LEWISTON – Fisheries managers at the Idaho Department of Fish and Game are preparing for a spring chinook season that is likely to feature small bag limits, some area closures and fishing allowed just two to four days a week in most areas.

The proposed season structures are the result of another poor return of spring and summer chinook bound for Idaho waters. The preseason forecast calls for harvest shares of fewer than 1,000 adult chinook in the Clearwater River Basin and about 1,600 adults on the lower Salmon and Little Salmon rivers. Both rivers have at times seen much higher harvest rates in the past.

“For the Clearwater, when we are forecasting something under 1,000, that is something we have not done very often,” said Joe DuPont, regional fisheries manager for the Idaho Department of Fish and Game at Lewiston. “It’s definitely on the low end, and same with the Rapid River run.”

DuPont attributed the weak run forecast to poor conditions in the Pacific Ocean over the past several years. If conditions in the ocean improve, DuPont said the fish will likely respond with higher returns.

DuPont said about 11,400 hatchery spring chinook are forecast to return to the Clearwater River and its tributaries. But when spawning needs and other factors are taken into account, it leaves a harvestable surplus of about 1,894 that is split evenly between tribal and nontribal anglers, or a harvest share of 947.

Fisheries managers are proposing a series of rules for the Clearwater and asking anglers for their preference. Under the agency’s previous protocol, a harvest share in the range of 200-1,000 adult hatchery chinook calls for a season with fishing allowed two days a week, Saturdays and Sundays, with a daily bag limit of one adult hatchery chinook. The agency is also considering a season structure in which fishing would be allowed four days a week, Thursdays through Sundays, but for only four hours a day with a daily bag limit of one adult fish.

If anglers prefer the option of fishing four days a week but only four hours per day, DuPont would like to know which time period they prefer. The options are starting at first light, roughly 5-9 a.m.; midmorning, or about 8 a.m. to noon; noon to 4 p.m.; or 4-8 p.m.

Under both the two-day and four-day scenarios, fishing would be allowed on the main Clearwater River from the Camas Prairie Railroad Bridge at Lewiston to the Cherrylane Bridge and from the Pink House boat ramp near Orofino to the Five Mile boat ramp. Boats would be excluded from the stretch of river between the U.S. Highway 12 bridge near Arrow and the Cherrylane Bridge. Fishing from the bank only would be allowed on the North Fork of the Clearwater below Dworshak Dam. Fishing would be allowed on the South Fork Clearwater from the Nez Perce Tribe Reservation boundary just downstream of Harpster to the Mount Idaho Grade Bridge and on the entire Middle Fork of the Clearwater.

Last year, the Clearwater started with a forecast harvest share range between 200 and 500 fish. The season was suspended May 19 and shut down a week later because of low returns. Agency officials did not record any harvest during the short time the season was open. The Middle Fork reopened late in the run to target chinook bound for the Selway River, but anglers harvested only 19 fish.

DuPont said the agency is contemplating allowing anglers on the Clearwater River and its tributaries to keep unclipped, or wild, spring chinook this year but needs to further examine the proposal and discuss it with the Nez Perce Tribe. Wild spring chinook in the Clearwater Basin are not protected by the Endangered Species Act.

On the lower Salmon and Little Salmon rivers, the agency is forecasting a return of about 10,000 adult chinook bound for Rapid River Hatchery. That works out to a harvest share of 1,627. The agency is proposing three options. Under the first, fishing would be allowed four days a week with a bag limit of two adults per day. The second option would also allow fishing four days a week, but the bag limit would be one adult fish per day. The smaller bag limit would likely allow the season to last longer. Under the third option, fishing would be allowed four days per week for just four hours a day and come with a one-fish bag limit, which is also designed to extend the season.

Under all three proposals, fishing would be allowed on the lower Salmon River from the Rice Creek Bridge near Cottonwood to Vinegar Creek, upstream of Riggins, and on a stretch of the Little Salmon River.

DuPont is asking anglers if they would like the agency to try to manage the season so harvest is split roughly 50/50 between the lower Salmon and Little Salmon rivers. He is also asking them to choose between various season structures for years when the harvest share exceeds 2,000 adult fish. The options include seasons that would allow fishing seven days a week with either a one-fish or two-fish daily bag limit.

Last year, the lower Salmon River and Little Salmon River started with a projected harvest share of about 1,500, but that was later slashed to just 512 because of poor returns. The season was shut down on June 2, before the fish arrived in the Little Salmon River.

The department is proposing a season with fishing allowed seven days a week and a daily bag limit of one adult hatchery chinook on the Snake River in Hells Canyon from the Dug Bar Boat Ramp to Hells Canyon Dam. The agency is projecting a harvest share of 286 adult chinook for that area.

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