Oct
21

Upper Columbia Steelhead Troubles

If you are a semi-regular with this weekly peek into the outdoors, you are certainly aware that Homey Kirk Johnson and I, along with various and sundry close family, have a thing for the steelhead of fall – especially on the Upper Columbia.

Thus it has been that each fall for the past several years Homey, boyfriend-in-law Brian Smith (POSSLQ with a daughter) and I have found ourselves driving into Pateros at somewhere around 6:30 a.m. We would meet up with Shane Magnuson for our annual steelhead adventure on the Columbia and one or two steelie-looking tributaries. We have been looking forward to late November with great anticipation and expectant conversation.

We know that, in this fishery, we will be allowed to keep hatchery steelhead – those with a missing adipose fin – and will be releasing all wild fish. Most years, something around two-thirds of the fish that come to play with us are hatchery-origin steelhead. And the limit of those keepers has ranged from one to three fish over the years.

We might talk about how Shane will get us into position at the head of a good stretch of ripe water, and ride through as we skillfully wield our spinning gear – dropping our drifting lure or bait into just the right spot in the transition zone at the edge of the river’s thalweg (the fastest water at a given point on the stream). All this to elicit a strike from a strong, red-streaked, bright-sided fish. This we will do hour after hour; casting, drifting and casting again, with just enough action to keep our blood pressure at a healthy level.

Now and again, Shane will decide we need to hit a more promising stream. During that short transition we will compare notes on earlier years and other streams. We will talk about the brilliant chrome steelhead Homey Bill Boyum and Kirk and I may have brought home from the Lower Columbia – or some other regional steelie action. And, Brian will remind us that he usually has the hot hand with steelhead. We will dutifully suggest that this year will be our year, and he must simply accept that he is about to be skunked.

By mid-morning, we may be wending our way up the almost-too-shallow Okanogan. There will be fish everywhere, and many strikes.

What a great trip this is going to be!

But, Alas. It ain’t going to be this year. And – we’ll see – it may be awhile.

Jeff Korth, Washington Fish and Wildlife’s Northcentral Regional Fish Pro has just announced that there will be no fishing season this fall and winter for steelhead on the Upper Columbia. Blame a sudden deep and sharp drop in the numbers of fish heading up the river.

At this point, the run is only one-third of the 10-year average of steelhead counts at Priest Rapids Dam. Run timing is right on the ten-year average, so it is very unlikely that the fish are just running late. The forecast at this point calls for about 6,300 steelhead at Priest Rapids Dam, well under the minimum of 9,550 fish required by NOAA-Fisheries before a fishing season is allowed on the mainstem or tributaries of the Upper Columbia River. For a successful spawning season, all fish possible – both wild fish and hatchery produced (from wild stock) – must reach the spawning areas.

Korth notes that the last time Upper Columbia steelhead runs were this low (in the 1990s), the result was a 1997 federal “endangered species” listing. The steelhead run to the Upper Columbia was later re-classified as “threatened,” as returns improved. Only time will tell what this weak run will bring.

Interestingly, Jeff said the weakest component in the current steelhead run is “one-salt” fish (those that stay in the ocean for just one year). One-salt fish are likely to be a bit over a third of the run passing over Priest Rapids Dam – slightly over half of the average run. The fish returning will, therefore, be a bit larger on average, but the impact of that on spawning success remains to be seen.

Steelhead fishing on the lower river is closed effective October 22, from the Pacific Ocean to Highway 395 south of the Tri-Cities. The one remaining steelhead fishery in the Columbia River above Highway 395 will be at Ringold, where anglers may keep two hatchery steelhead (identified by both a clipped adipose and left ventral fin). Jeff expects the Ringold run to amount to just a fraction of its usual size.

Bummer. Let us hope this is a one-and-done Upper Columbia year, not a harbinger of things to come – again.

Written by Jim Huckabay. Posted in Uncategorized

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