Idaho's steelhead season won't close as scheduled Saturday.
Members of the newly formed Idaho River Community Alliance, environmental groups and the Idaho Department of Fish and Game forged an agreement to stave off the closure. The agreement was approve by the Idaho Fish and Game Commission in a unanimous vote Friday evening.
Under the terms of the agreement, the state will close steelhead fishing only on the South Fork of the Clearwater River upstream of the Mount Idaho Bridge on State Highway 14 and on the Salmon River from Warren Creek to the Copper Mine Boat Ramp upstream of Riggins. Both stretches are places where wild fish are known to congregate in high densities. Steelhead fishing will remain open elsewhere.
Although Idaho Fish and Game officials were unwilling to implement changes to legal fishing gear and fishing practices requested by the conservation groups, outfitters and guides associated with the Idaho River Community Alliance agreed to voluntarily adopt some of them. According to the terms of the agreement, the outfitters and guides will use only single hooks on plugs and lures, require their clients to keep the first hatchery fish they catch and release wild fish without removing them from the water. Private anglers are not bound by the voluntary measures but are bound by the closures on the Salmon and South Fork of the Clearwater.
Without the agreement, the season was to enter a state of suspension starting Saturday. The Idaho Fish and Game Commission voted last month to halt steelhead fishing after the environmental groups that include the Conservation Angler, Wild Fish Conservancy, Wild Salmon Rivers, Friends of the Clearwater and Snake River Waterkeeper threatened to sue the state over its expired steelhead fishing permit. Idaho Rivers United also signed on to the threat of legal action but pulled out last week. The groups are concerned about the dismally low return of wild steelhead this fall and believe fishing needed to be curtailed or regulations changed to help ensure as many of the fish make it to spawning grounds as possible.
The state’s federal permit through National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries that allows a small number of wild steelhead protected as threatened under the Endangered Species Act to be harmed during fishing expired in 2010. The state submitted a new permit application the same year, but officials at NOAA Fisheries only recently began to review it.
The closure would have idled anglers and inflicted financial hardships on outfitters and guides and other businesses that depend on the spending of steelheaders. The economic hit was expected to be particularly difficult at Riggins, where steelhead fishing is one of the only things that brings visitors to the small town along the Salmon River in late winter and early spring.