Salmon River steelhead fishing has been in a slump the last two or three years. Local fisheries biologists put a lot of blame on changing ocean conditions. Ocean temperature cycles affect steelhead and salmon. We apparently have been in an unfavorable cycle for several years, though I’m told the cycle seems to be in an improving trend now. A hot spell in 2015 which raised river temperatures during migration also had an effect, but that should be wearing out now. Fishing should improve based on improving conditions. Dams certainly have a significant impact, but their effects aren’t cyclic in the way we have seen fish numbers cycle. Early last fall, about the time that the steelhead season was to open, the Idaho Department of Fish and Game considered closing the season, based on low fish numbers. They decided to open the season with a one-fish limit. Fishing was poor, and we had few reservations—and many cancellations after the word spread about the fishing. I didn’t mind a whole lot; we had had a good summer, and then I had more time to chase elk. John and Stephanie could have used the work, though.
Steelhead fishing here targets fish that have been raised in hatcheries (identified by a fin clip) but there are also wild steelhead in the river which are protected under endangered species regulations. IDFG has to get concurrence from NOAA to allow fishing for hatchery fish-wild steelhead, if caught, are to be released. The formal concurrence expired in 2010, and since then NOAA has been too busy to renew the arrangement, but informally not objecting to fishing in Idaho—a bureaucratic limbo. Late this fall a fly fishing club approached IDFG and asked that fishing regulations be changed, or the club would sue IDFG because of the lack of a formal permission. But if their demands were met, they would not sue. IDFG didn’t have a legal leg to stand on, didn’t want to waste money defending a suit they were sure to lose, and didn’t want to relinquish control of fishing regulations to the club, so they closed the season, eliminating the threat of a suit. These days most important environmental decisions are made by judges, not by wild life managers. Lawsuits are filed with judges known to favor the group bringing the suit. Had IDFG defended and lost the suit, there is a good chance the judge would have granted the club’s requested regulation changes, maybe permanently on into the expected period of recovery. IDFG did the best they could with the cards they were dealt.
There are a number of methods of fishing for steelhead. The club’s requests would not have interfered with using a fly rod. They would have specifically prohibited fishing from a boat, so no more backtrolling plugs, or casting while drifting. No bait. Presumably a fisherman still could cast spoons form the bank, but with restrictions on hooks. Any benefit to the fishery would result from reduced fishing pressure by eliminating a major segment of the fishing public—but not fly fishermen.
As I think about fishing methods that could impact the population, the greatest effect that I see is from fishermen, primarily with fly rods, targeting wild steelhead on the spawning beds, wading around in the redds, crushing eggs, disturbing spawning fish. The club did not object to that. Somehow this threat of a suit was presented in the press as a way to increase pressure for dam removal, but I fail to see the connection. The whole thing stinks of selfishness and elitism. Close the season if necessary to protect the resource—but don’t continue to allow one user-group to fish while prohibiting another. There is no reason to prohibit fishing from a boat other that to eliminate competition with bank fishermen—and to restrict guides, who primarily use boats. There are people who do not believe that guides should exist—that if you need help in an outdoor activity, you shouldn’t be there. There are numerous examples, but that’s another story.
This issue has lit a fire under NOAA to get the paperwork done, which is now expected by mid-winter. When the season was closed, fishing was about to end in the section of the river near Salmon due to ice, so not a big impact to us, and we expected that the permitting would be completed in time for our spring fishing—if there were any fish.
The closure WAS a big deal to the lower Salmon River and the Clearwater, where ice is not a problem and there is a winter fishery. Some of the outfitters in the Riggins and Lewiston area were faced with losing a significant amount of business. They quickly got attorneys together with the club and IDFG to negotiate a reopening of the season. It was obvious at this point that the club’s objective of changing the regulations wasn’t working out like expected, so they compromised, and IDFG agreed—the Riggins outfitters got to fish with some voluntary, non-binding restrictions on methods, and the wilderness section of the Salmon River, upstream from Riggins to just above the mouth of the Middle Fork, would remain closed.
The agreement developed so fast that the outfitters who operate in that section, or the eastern Idaho fishermen who have their own boats, weren’t able to participate in the negotiation—got thrown under the bus. Just not enough of them. Apparently the rationale was that that would protect wild fish that go up the South Fork and the Middle Fork of the Salmon—but those fish first pass through the Lewiston—Riggins area where they are subject to fishing. Supposedly the season will be reopened to fishing in that section no later than 15 March, but spring fishing in that area is normally from late February to mid March, so outfitters there basically got screwed. At this point the hope is that this will be a one-time situation, not on-going.