Wild runs: Steelhead surge; chinook struggle

·5 min read

Jun. 11—The Idaho Department of Fish and Game reports the state's 2020 wild steelhead returns dramatically exceeded expectations, but this year's wild spring chinook are underperforming both expectations and their hatchery cousins.


Fisheries managers in the Columbia River Basin expected 75,200 spring chinook bound for tributaries upstream of Bonneville Dam to return this year. In mid-May, they upgraded that forecast to 87,000 and bumped up harvest quotas on some fisheries.

While still a modest return, the upgrade is welcome news for the runs that have struggled greatly over the past four years. However, it appears hatchery chinook are doing better than wild chinook listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.

"At the moment it does not appear the Snake wild component of the run is tracking above the forecast in the the way the total upriver chinook run is," said Chris Sullivan, anadromous fish manager at the Idaho Department of Fish and Game at Boise.

Fisheries biologists had forecast a return of 8,165 wild spring chinook. Sullivan said it's looking like the actual number will be between 5,000 and 7,000.

Spring chinook fishing seasons that target adult hatchery fish are continuing on the Little Salmon River near Riggins and on the Snake River below Hells Canyon Dam. Fishing has been hot on the Little Salmon River, according to a report from Joe DuPont, regional fisheries manager for the Idaho Department of Fish and Game at Lewiston. At the start of the Thursday-through-Sunday fishing period, the state had 421 adult chinook left on its Little Salmon River harvest share.

Fishing for chinook jacks is open on parts of the Clearwater River and its tributaries. DuPont said few anglers caught jacks in the last Thursday-to-Sunday fishing period, but they did manage to catch and release more than 700 adults. The department assumes as many as 10 percent of those might die even though they were released. DuPont said if last week's adult chinook catch rates, which were a scorching one hour per fish on the North Fork of the Clearwater River and three to five hours per fish on the Clearwater and its Middle Fork, continue this week, the season will likely shut down to ensure enough adult chinook survive to meet hatchery spawning goals.


Marika Dobos, a regional fisheries biologist for the agency at Lewiston, wrote in a blog post that wild steelhead numbers are up after a string of troubling years. The agency tracks steelhead spawning streams each spring; Dobos cited the Lochsa River and its tributary Fish Creek as examples. Steelhead that returned from the ocean in the summer and fall of 2020 are wrapping up their spawning season this month.

The state has an antenna at the mouth of the Lochsa River that detects wild steelhead that have been implanted with electronic tags, and it maintains a weir on Fish Creek where returning steelhead can be counted. An average of 77 adult spring chinook were detected by the antena from 2017-19. This year, 181 steelhead have been identified by the equipment, a more than twofold increase.

At the Fish Creek weir, the agency had trapped more than 80 adult steelhead as of last week. That compares to fewer than 10 fish a year from 2017 to 2019 and just a dozen last spring.

She wrote that the 1999 to 2020 average is 105 steelhead.

"While this year's catch is still lower than the average, the preliminary spring 2021 data shows a good uptick from recent years," she wrote.

According to the Technical Advisory Committee, a collection of state, federal and tribal fisheries biologists, the return of B-run steelhead bound for the Snake River soared above expectations. The biologists predicted a return of just 1,400 wild B-run steelhead would make it at least as far as Bonneville Dam on the Columbia River. The actual return was estimated at 5,278, or 377 percent above the forecast. The committee had forecast a combined hatchery and wild run of just 9,600 B-run steelhead, but the actual return exceeded 32,000.

"The fish surprised us and showed up 300 to 400 percent above forecast," said Chris Sullivan, anadromous fish coordinator for the Idaho Department of Fish and Game at Boise.

Dobos wrote in her blog post and Sullivan echoed that the performance of the 2020 run gives them some hope steelhead may be starting a rebound.

But if that is to be the case, the fish will have to exceed expectations for a second straight year. Sullivan and his colleagues on the Technical Advisory Committee are forecasting another poor return of the prized fish. The are expecting only 7,600 B-run steelhead bound for the Clearwater and Salmon rivers to make it at least as far as Bonneville Dam this summer and fall, and only about 1,000 of those are forecast to be wild steelhead.

"The projection for 2021 is low, but hopefully we might see the same thing we saw last year," he said.

The overall steelhead forecast calls for the return of 35,470 hatchery and 14,500 wild steelhead to Lower Granite Dam. That includes about 30,850 hatchery and 13,750 wild A-run steelhead and about 4,600 hatchery and 700 wild B-run steelhead.

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

"The fish surprised us and showed up 300 to 400 percent above forecast."

Chris Sullivan, anadromous fish coordinator for the Idaho Department of Fish and Game at Boise, on the 2020 steelhead return; fisheries managers are hoping for a repeat in 2021

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