Chinook outlook fair; slow returns so far

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Courtesy photo Jennie Fisher, of Grangeville, holds a chinook salmon she caught in the Salmon River.

Sections of the Clearwater River open for fishing include:

Mainstem Clearwater from Camas Prairie Bridge upstream to the mouth of the South Fork of the Clearwater River.

North Fork Clearwater from mouth upstream to Dworshak Dam.

South Fork Clearwater from mouth upstream to the confluence of American and Red rivers

Middle Fork Clearwater from South Fork Clearwater upstream to the confluence of the Lochsa and Selway rivers.

By RALPH BARTHOLDT

Staff Writer

The chinook salmon that migrate from the ocean up the Columbia River to the Clearwater River drainage aren’t the same variety of fish as those in Lake Coeur d’Alene, but just like the lake fish, the chinook that fin from the ocean to Idaho are a sought-after game fish.

This year’s run of spring chinook in central Idaho’s river systems, which started as the worst on record, is slowly picking up.

That is good news for anglers and fisheries managers, because, well, people plan their vacations around the annual run.

“The chinook fishery overall is very important, especially to Riggins and the Clearwater area because that’s where the majority of the effort takes place,” said Roger Phillips of the Idaho Department of Fish and Game.

The central Idaho spring chinook fishery usually hits from May through June, and then a summer fishery opens on streams higher up in the drainage, such as the Middle Fork of the Clearwater and the Lochsa rivers.

In the spring, though, “When there’s a good return, it’s elbow to elbow for weeks on the Little Salmon below Rapid River,” Phillips said. “Even when it’s an average run, people still schedule their vacations around fishing … and lots of people participate.”

So far this year, the number of fish heading to north central Idaho — estimates are based on chinook crossing over Columbia River dams as they migrate upstream — has been lousy.

So lousy that Idaho Fish and Game commissioners, who set annual seasons based on fish returns, have postponed decisions on setting a summer season.

Why? Because it’s tricky — at least administratively.

“There are different harvest limits for spring and summer fish,” Phillips said. “There are also different limits for each river section, so when the season closes depends on when the limits are reached for that section of river.”

Fish and Game typically divides the harvest limits by river sections, so all the fish don’t get caught downstream before they have a chance to reach upstream anglers, Phillips said.

Earlier this month, Clearwater Region fishery manager Joe Dupont made no bones about the strength of this season’s spring chinook run.

“The salmon counts over Bonneville Dam stink,” Dupont said.

So far, the 2018 run, compared to runs all the way back to the beginning of May 1939, is the poorest recorded.

“This is the lowest count we have ever seen for this time of year,” DuPont said. “In other words, the worst ever.”

There are many factors affecting fish runs, including ocean temperatures, feeding patterns and river runoff. They can all hasten or postpone a run.

The chinook run in the Columbia has picked up since DuPont’s early observations, with more numbers of fish heading upriver, but commissioners are still postponing the setting of summer limits.

As of last week, more than 40,600 adult spring chinook had passed the Bonneville dam on the Columbia River, the first dam in the system as they head upstream. The number is far below the 10-year average of more than 96,000, but enough to bolster the spirits of anglers and fisheries managers.

By Monday, fewer than 800 spring chinook had crossed Lower Granite Dam about 25 miles downstream from Lewiston, the last dam fish must cross to swim into the Clearwater River. The number is less than 5 percent of the 10-year average, according to Idaho Fish and Game.

High river flows caused by spring runoff may slow the run further, DuPont said. But as of this week, more fish have showed up in the system than last year.

Despite the challenges, spring chinook fishing is open on several rivers. Rules include open fishing four days a week, Thursdays through Sundays, in the Clearwater drainage and seven days per week in the Salmon, Little Salmon and Snake rivers.

Anglers can keep four chinook per day — but no more than one adult 24 inches or longer — in the Clearwater River system, and four per day with no more than two adults in the Salmon, Little Salmon and Snake rivers.

DuPont, whose fishery work includes extensive work in the Panhandle including with Coeur d’Alene’s chinook salmon, said the chinook that migrate into Lake Coeur d’Alene tributaries are fall chinook. In an ocean-related system, fall chinook get bigger because they spend more time in salt water than spring run chinook salmon.

Idaho’s recent history with chinook fishing include a 25-year dry spell between about 1974 and 1999 when seasons were stop and go — 14 of 25 years without a chinook season — and harvest was low, registering between 1,500 to 7,000 fish, Phillips said.

“But there’s been continuous annual seasons since 2000 with a high harvest of 43,300 fish in 2001,” he said.

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