Idaho summer chinook fishing may heat up

Lars Alsager holds a hatchery summer chinook from the South Fork of the Salmon River. The same strain of summer chinook is being introduced into the Clearwater basin, and is likely to produce a fishing season later this year.

Idaho anglers could be in for a second helping of salmon fishing later this spring and early summer.

For the third year in a row, Idaho Department of Fish and Game officials anticipate a summer chinook season will be offered to anglers about the time that spring chinook fishing is winding down. And this year, there will be significantly more summer salmon available.

Fisheries manager Joe DuPont at Lewiston said enough summer chinook are expected to return to the Lochsa River to net a harvest share of nearly 600 adult fish. That is about three times the number of fish that were available in last year's summer chinook fishing season.

DuPont said the growth of the nascent run is especially encouraging because the fish returning this year come from a class that saw fewer juveniles released two years ago. Summer chinook were once native to the Clearwater basin but have long been extinct. The department and the Nez Perce Tribe are rebuilding the run by using summer chinook from the South Fork of the Salmon River. Two years ago, a flood washed debris into a hatchery facility on the South Fork of the Salmon River and killed many of the juvenile fish.

"We had less of a release for more of a potential return. It shows these fish have some good potential for survival to the ocean and back," he said. "It gives us optimism that next year could be really good, maybe 1,000 fish."

As in the past two years, the summer chinook have not had their adipose fins removed. So if a season is approved, anglers will be able to keep unclipped fish.

DuPont said fisheries managers haven't completed a fishing proposal and he doesn't know which areas of the Clearwater basin might be open to summer chinook fishing. Last year, the season was confined to the Lochsa River.

Anglers there did a good job of figuring out how to target the summers and met the harvest quota. DuPont expects the fishery's popularity to grow if the run continues to build.

"I think this will turn into a pretty popular fishery," he said. "It's later in the year when other fisheries are shut down and the air temperatures are warmer."

But the idea of a growing summer chinook fishery consisting of unmarked fish isn't popular throughout the basin. Fisheries managers in other states such as Washington are wary of the proposal.

Chris Donley, fish program manager for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife at Spokane, said the fact that the summer chinook are not marked by having their adipose fins clipped presents a number of problems for downriver states. Since they aren't clipped and will be mixed in with protected wild fish as they swim through the Columbia and Snake rivers, anglers wouldn't be able to harvest them even though they are hatchery fish produced with funding meant to compensate for lost fishing opportunities caused by the four lower Snake River dams.

"All three states want access to those," Donley said. "It's excluding us from having the ability to access those fish in an effective manner."

In addition, if anglers do catch unclipped summer chinook from the Lochsa River as they swim through the Columbia and Snake rivers on their way upstream, they would not only have to release them, but fisheries managers would have to tally those as wild fish encounters. In rivers where wild chinook protected by the Endangered Species Act are present, state fishing agencies need a permit from the federal government that allows anglers to incidentally kill a small number of wild fish. Under those permits, managers must keep track of the number of wild fish that are caught and released. When they hit their quota of wild fish encounters, fishing for hatchery salmon is shut down.

Lastly, Donley doesn't like the precedent of states not marking all hatchery fish that are available for harvest. Most hatchery salmon are marked, except those that are produced for conservation purposes. Donley said if other states start leaving some of their fish that return to tributaries unmarked, it would further reduce the number available for harvest in downstream fisheries.

"Our feeling is it's a bit of a slippery slope to set a precedent when currently everybody is complying with the marking (requirement)."

DuPont countered that the return of summer chinook to the Lochsa is so modest that it isn't statistically likely to make other states exceed their wild fish encounter quotas.

"That small of a release and return is not going to drive their fishery," he said. "If it got to the point thousands were coming back, then maybe."

Donley said an easy fix would be to mark the fish so they are available for harvest throughout the Columbia River system.

"We would like to find a way where we can all access them," he said.

The commission will likely consider summer chinook fishing rules at a meeting later this spring, DuPont said. Last week, the commission approved spring chinook seasons on the Clearwater River and its north, south and middle forks, the Salmon and Little Salmon rivers and the Snake River in Hells Canyon starting April 28.

Washington is considering a spring chinook season on the Snake River. According the proposal, fishing would be allowed just two days a week - with short sections near Clarkston and Little Goose Dam open Sundays and Mondays starting April 22, and another short section near Ice Harbor Dam open Fridays and Saturdays starting April 20.

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