A bad year for anglers got even worse Friday, when the Idaho Fish and Game Commission voted to close steelhead fishing in the Clearwater River basin and on a short section of the Snake River near Lewiston.

In a unanimous vote, commissioners approved a proposal by the Idaho Department of Fish and Game designed to ensure as many B-run steelhead as possible reach the hatcheries they are bound for on the Clearwater River. Even with the closure, fisheries managers estimate they will fall well short of hatchery spawning goals, perhaps by as much as 50 percent.

“That is the concern,” said Lance Hebdon, anadromous fish manager for the department.

The closure of the Clearwater River and its North, South and Middle forks and the Snake River from the Idaho/Washington state line at Lewiston to the Couse Creek boat ramp south of Asotin will take effect at midnight Sept. 29, at which time anglers won’t be allowed to target steelhead, even on a catch-and-release basis.

The unprecedented move is sending shock waves through the angling community that was already stung by this year’s terrible spring chinook run and an awful return of A-run steelhead bound for the Snake, Salmon and Grande Ronde rivers. It’s the third disappointing year in a row for the return of both salmon and steelhead to the Snake River basin.

During a public comment period of a meeting of Gov. Brad Little’s Salmon Working Group on Friday, fishing guide Jason Schultz said those who make their living off of the fish are worried. He implored the group to do whatever it can to help the fish.

“We are all scared, we don’t know which direction this is going to take us,” Schultz said. “Those of us who rely on income from Idaho salmon and steelhead are absolutely screwed. We don’t know what to do.”

Many guides and anglers will flock to rivers in Idaho, Washington and Oregon that remain open to steelhead fishing. But those places are likely to be crowded.

“Take a number,” said Will Godfrey, an avid steelhead angler from Lewiston, speculating on the conditions on the Grande Ronde River.

Steve Pettit, another avid angler and a retired Idaho Fish and Game biologist, wondered if the Salmon and Snake rivers should be closed as well, because of the poor showing of the A-run.

“I look at the dam counts and it’s frightening,” he said. “There is no fish.”

In one bright spot, commissioners approved a coho salmon fishing season on the Clearwater. About 10,000 coho are expected to return past Lower Granite Dam on the Snake River this year. That is enough to offer the first fishing season in two years on the salmon reintroduced by the Nez Perce Tribe. The river is now open for coho harvest from its mouth to Memorial Bridge at Lewiston seven days a week, and from the bridge to the confluence of the Middle and South forks of the Clearwater at Kooskia. The bag limit is two coho per day. The season is expected to last until Oct. 13, unless harvest rates necessitate an early closure.

Barker may be contacted at ebarker@lmtribune.com or at (208) 848-2273. Follow him on Twitter @ezebarker.

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