In a surprise move, the Idaho Fish and Game Commission reopened spring chinook salmon fishing on a portion of the Middle Fork of the Clearwater River east of Kooskia on Thursday.
The season, which will target about 1,200 hatchery spring and summer chinook returning to the Selway River, is open from 4:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. seven days a week, from the boundary of the Nez Perce Indian Reservation at about mile marker 79 on U.S. Highway 12 to the confluence of the Lochsa and Selway rivers. Anglers will be allowed to keep chinook with clipped or intact adipose fins.
The Idaho Department of Fish and Game closed all chinook fishing on the Clearwater River and its tributaries in May because of poor returns and a forecast that showed too few adult salmon would return to hatcheries to meet annual spawning goals. That forecast has not changed.
However, regional fisheries biologist Joe DuPont said the fish targeted in the newly opened season do not return to hatcheries, and fisheries managers have no ability to collect them for spawning.
“Typically, we intercept these fish in our main river fisheries, but in a year like this with no fisheries, this has not happened,” he said. “Because harvesting these fish will not affect how many fish we collect for brood, we decided it only makes sense to allow people to fish for them.”
The Nez Perce Tribe, which closed its salmon fishing season on the Clearwater River on June 1, is targeting the same chinook in a fishery on the Selway River.
“It’s taking advantage of an opportunity, both the tribe and the state, to harvest fish that are not going back to a broodstock collection area,” said David Johnson, manager of the Nez Perce Tribe Department of Fisheries Resources Management. “The closures are on those areas where we can actually get our hands on the fish and trap them.”
Anglers from each group will be able to catch about 600 adult chinook. The bag limit for the state’s season is four chinook, of which no more than two can be adults.
Lance Hebdon, anadromous fish manager for the Idaho Department of Fish and Game at Boise, said about 20 percent of the fish have already entered the Selway River. He said the state’s fishery will be closely monitored, but noted it is being held in an area that is rarely targeted by anglers.
“We don’t have a good feel for how much harvest is going to take place in that fishery. It could really take folks a while to figure it out.”
Each year, about 400,000 chinook smolts are released in the Selway River. Those that return as adults are caught by non-tribal anglers as they pass through the Clearwater and Middle Fork of the Clearwater rivers and by tribal anglers in the Selway River.
Some of the smolts are released without first having their adipose fins clipped to identify them as coming from hatcheries. Because of that, the state is allowing anglers to keep both clipped and unclipped fish.
“They are primarily of hatchery origin and it’s a mix of marked (clipped) and unmarked fish,” Hebdon said. “Couple that with the fact there are no (Endangered Species Act) constraints in the Clearwater, we are comfortable running that fishery with adipose-intact harvest.”
Unlike wild steelhead and fall chinook, wild spring and summer chinook in the Clearwater basin are not protected by the ESA. But the state generally requires anglers to release unclipped chinook during its spring and summer fishing seasons.
Fisheries managers from the state did not propose a chinook fishing season on the South Fork of the Salmon River east of McCall because it appears that run will be too small to support harvest. Agency officials said they may elect to open that season in the future if the run improves.
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