Idaho Fish and Game officials are polling anglers to get their opinions on potential rules designed to balance salmon fishing with catch-release steelhead fishing, in preparation of a possible fall chinook fishing season on the Clearwater River this fall.

Idaho allows fall chinook fishing in the Snake River and short section of the Clearwater from its mouth to Memorial Bridge. But the state hasn’t allowed fall salmon fishing on the rest of the river.

That could change if a fisheries management plan submitted jointly by Idaho, Oregon and Washington is approved by the federal government in the coming weeks. The plan would allow the states to hold fall chinook fishing seasons in which wild and unmarked hatchery fall chinook could be harvested.

On the Clearwater, Idaho Fish and Game officials are proposing an initial experimental season that would run roughly from Sept. 1 to Oct. 31. It would overlap with the catch-and-release steelhead season that runs from July 1 to Oct. 14 and potentially lead to conflict between angler groups. Many steelheaders, particularly those who use fly gear, cherish the catch-and-release season because it often is less crowded, with fewer boats than the catch-and-keep season.

Agency officials wish to convene a working group of anglers in the coming months to hash out potential rules designed to balance fall chinook and steelhead fishing. Regional fisheries manager Joe DuPont said if the permit is approved in time for a season this fall, the agency likely will hold an experimental season and gather data on how the two seasons work together. That data would then be used by the working group to shape its deliberations over the next year or two.

This fall, about 5,400 wild and 10,000 hatchery fall chinook are expected to return to Idaho. If the state’s fall chinook fisheries management plan is approved, Idaho anglers could take about 1,200 fall chinook with intact adipose fins and about 2,000 fall chinook with clipped fins. About half of each could be harvested from the Clearwater River.

At a meeting held at the Clearwater Region headquarters of Idaho Fish and Game on Tuesday, regional fisheries manager Joe DuPont, asked anglers to rank their preference of four potential rule structures for the experimental season.

Open fall chinook fishing for seven days a week on the entire reach of the river.

Open fall chinook fishing on the entire reach of the river with some days closed.

Open fall chinook fishing season seven days a week with only certain reaches open.

Open fall chinook season seven days a week with motorized boats allowed on some days but not on others.

Those who didn’t attend the meeting can find the survey on the fishing section of the department’s website under the tab “chinook fishing,” which could be posted as early as today.

During the meeting, many anglers expressed enthusiasm for the chance to fish for fall chinook on the Clearwater. But others fear it will draw large crowds and affect the catch-and-release steelhead season.

The Nez Perce Tribe is also planning a fall chinook season on the Clearwater River. Fall chinook that return above Lower Granite Dam have expanded dramatically in the past several years. That can be traced to a hatchery program operated by the tribe. The program releases 3.5 million juvenile fall chinook each year, including about 2 million in the Clearwater River.

“We’ve seen a tremendous response to the hatchery program. In 1990, we counted only four fall Chinook redds in the Clearwater River. In 2015, the number of redds in the Clearwater was 5,082 — more than the additional 3,155 counted in the Snake River,” said Joe Oatman, deputy program manager and harvest manager for the tribe’s Department of Fisheries Resources Management.

The tribe and state are working together on the potential fishing seasons.

“It is the tribe’s expectation that our tribal members will benefit from these fish that we have helped produce. The needs of (the) tribal fishery should be a key consideration (Idaho Fish and Game officials) take into account as they go through their process to figure out the details of the sport fishery.”

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

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