Anglers seek coho season extension

A fishing group is asking the Idaho Fish and Game Commission to extend the coho salmon fishing season on the Clearwater River. The proposal is being met with resistance by fisheries officials who fear the season could reduce the collection of hatchery B-run steelhead.

Idaho’s coho fishing season on the Clearwater River will sunset on Sunday, but some anglers are lobbying the Idaho Fish and Game Commission to extend fishing on a short section of the river.

This week the Clearwater Chapter of the Idaho River Community Alliance asked Idaho Fish and Game commissioners to consider extending the coho season from the U.S. Highway 95 bridge at Spalding to the railroad bridge near Arrow. The short section of river is centered on the mouth of Lapwai Creek. Many of the coho in the Clearwater are returning to Lapwai Creek.

“A lot of our members really like to target coho, and we were kind of thinking how could you have this coho season go on longer and minimize impacts to steelhead, because the last thing we want to do is impact the steelhead,” said Toby Wyatt, president of the group.

Commission Chairman Jerry Myers of Salmon said he received the letter and, along with fisheries officials at the Idaho Department of Fish and Game, is working on a response.

Wyatt conceded the request is a long shot. But given that the Clearwater is closed to steelhead fishing and will close to fall chinook fishing after Sunday, he said extending the coho season would give displaced anglers a replacement fishing opportunity.

“This is one of the best coho runs we have had,” he said while noting many of the fish have yet to arrive in the river.

He also said salmon and steelhead, while in the same river, often don’t occupy the same water.

“This is not a guiding opportunity for me; this is for the public,” he said. “This is a wonderful harvest opportunity on some hatchery coho.”

The preseason forecast called for a return of about 11,000 coho. But the run is coming in at only about 40 percent of the forecast. Becky Johnson, production manager for the Nez Perce Tribe’s Tribe’s Department of Fisheries Resources Management, said according to normal timing of the coho run it should be about halfway done as measured at Lower Granite Dam. Through Tuesday, about 2,500 coho had been counted at the dam.

The closed steelhead season and the concern for the extremely low numbers of hatchery B-run steelhead forecast to return to Dworshak National Fish Hatchery are likely to make it difficult for the commission to approve the group’s request. The commission closed the steelhead season on the Clearwater River and the Snake River downstream of Couse Creek in an attempt to maximize collection of hatchery steelhead for spawning, known as brood stock.

The commission would likely want fisheries managers for the tribe to go along. Coho salmon were driven to extinction in the Clearwater River and later reintroduced by the tribe.

The tribe also co-manages Dworshak National Fish Hatchery and has grave concerns about steelhead numbers. The Nez Perce Fish and Wildlife Commission closed the Clearwater River and the lower Snake River to all salmon and steelhead fishing and lobbied its fellow Columbia River Treaty Tribes to halt gill net fishing in the Columbia River. Those actions were taken in an attempt to make sure as many steelhead return to the Clearwater River as possible.

David Johnson, director of the tribe’s Department of Fisheries Resources Management, said if even one steelhead were incidentally caught in an extended coho fishery it would be too many.

“We don’t think it would be appropriate to do that,” he said. “We are still short on brood stock. We are doing everything we can to get brood stock but we are going to be short, so any incidental take is one less steelhead that can be taken for brood.”

David Johnson said the tribe is unhappy that the state didn’t close coho and fall chinook fishing on the Clearwater and lower Snake rivers at the same time it closed steelhead fishing. He noted tribal anglers in the Columbia River and those who fish for coho and fall chinook on the Clearwater and Snake rivers don’t target steelhead. But the tribe still felt those fisheries needed to be closed to avoid incidental take of steelhead.

“We closed the fishery to prevent that sort of thing, and we asked the state several times (to close coho and fall chinook fishing) and they declined to do that. They may say they are not targeting steelhead, but there is incidental take.”

He noted falling short of steelhead spawning goals at Dworshak National Fish Hatchery will mean lower steelhead returns in future years. That is especially true given that a second mass of warm water has formed in the North Pacific Ocean which could lower survival of salmon and steelhead in the coming years.

In addition, one of the reasons this year’s hatchery steelhead run is so low can likely be blamed on elevated dissolved gas levels that were present in the hatchery in 2017 prior to juvenile steelhead being released. Those fish are returning as adults this year. The hatchery also experienced high gas levels in 2018, meaning next year’s steelhead return could be depressed as well, because of the gas trauma the fish experienced in the hatchery, mortality associated with Snake and Columbia river dams and the poor ocean conditions.

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

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