Idaho Fishery Managers Are Optimistic About Clearwater Steelhead Return

Photo: Idaho Department of Fish and Game

In a year when the news seems to be all bad – pandemic, wildfires – here is a bit of good news: the better-than-expected return of steelhead, wild and hatchery fish, to Idaho’s Clearwater River.

In a blog post, Joe DuPont, Clearwater Regional Fisheries Manager for the Idaho Department of Fish and Game, wrote that the 2020 return should be similar to the 2014 return, which was the third-best of the previous 10 years. His prediction for 2020 is based on the number of fish so far counted at Bonneville Dam, the first that fish encounter when returning from the ocean to spawn.

Through October 6, 2020 more than 20,000 Clearwater steelhead had passed Bonneville, and Idaho fishery managers believe more will pass. DuPont wrote that more than 95 percent of the hatchery steelhead returning to the Clearwater have spent two years in the ocean, and the fish he and others have seen at Lower Granite Dam on the Snake river, the last of eight dams the fish pass on their way to the Clearwater, look good – “fat and healthy looking,” he wrote.

The outlook for wild Clearwater steelhead is optimistic, as well, DuPont wrote. The forecast is for 7,900 unclipped B-Index steelhead passing Bonneville Dam. About 90 percent of these are wild, and many will spawn in the Clearwater Basin. Steelhead that pass Bonneville are categorized as A-Run or B-Run based on their fork length (tip of the nose to fork of the tail). A-Run steelhead return to all tributaries above Bonneville including the Snake, but B-Run return only to the Snake in both the Clearwater and Salmon River drainages. The A-Run fish enter the Columbia in the late spring and summer months while the B-Run fish primarily return in late August and September. The B-Run fish are generally larger than A-Run fish.

If the return is that high, it would be more than three times as many as forecasted for 2020 earlier in the year. “An estimated 4,000-5,000 wild steelhead will return to the Clearwater Basin this year,” he wrote. “This is a great improvement over what we have seen in recent years; we still have a way to go, but it is certainly good to see improvements.”

Michael Edmondson, interim administrator of the Idaho Governor’s Office of Species Conservation, wrote in an email that Clearwater steelhead returns in 2018 and 2019 were so low that Idaho fishery managers were concerned that not enough would return to meet hatchery broodstock needs, 1,451 fish. Obviously, that number will be far exceeded this year. Edmondson wrote that the return this year “is a pleasant situation that I hope is the start of a trend.”

The good return means sport fishing is being allowed. Most of the Clearwater now is open for catch-and-release steelhead fishing (some areas allow harvest), and beginning October 15 the entire Clearwater River and some of its tributaries will open to steelhead harvest (daily limit of 2 fish of any size). More details on the steelhead fishing rules and seasons in Idaho are posted here.

This chart from the Idaho Department of Fish and Game shows how the predicted 2020 return, solid and dashed red line, compares to recent years.