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Clearwater River Steelhead Update

ClEARWATER River Steelhead Update 

September 22, 2020


By Joe DuPont

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Joe DuPont

Hi everybody. Many of you have been patiently waiting for the arrival of Clearwater River’s famed steelhead run. These fish are just starting to make it to the Clearwater River, and we now have a good feel for how many of these fish will ultimately make it to Idaho.  As such, I figured I better get an update out so you all know what to expect and can plan accordingly. The good news is the run is looking much better than we have seen the past three years.

To give you a feel for how this run compares to others in the past 10 years, I created the figure below. This figure shows the number (based on PIT tags) of Clearwater River hatchery steelhead that have passed over Bonneville Dam since 2011. The solid line in red shows how many steelhead have passed over to date, and the dashed red line shows how many we are forecasting to ultimately pass over Bonneville Dam.  As of September 21, 2020, our PIT tag estimates indicate around 17,000 Clearwater bound steelhead have passed over Bonneville Dam and we believe another 6,000 are still to come bringing the total to somewhere around 23,000 fish. If this happens, this return will be very similar to what we saw in 2014 which was the third best return we have seen in the last 10 years. Over 95% of the hatchery steelhead returning to the Clearwater River this year spent two years in the ocean, and based on the fish we have handled at the Lower Granite Dam fish trap, these steelhead are fat and healthy looking.

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Joe DuPont

Typically, around 79% of the Clearwater River hatchery steelhead that pass over Bonneville Dam will make it to Idaho. That means we are expecting around 18,000 of these steelhead to make it to the Clearwater River which is well over what is required to meet broodstock needs (1,451 fish). With this many steelhead returning to the Clearwater River, we can provide harvest opportunities like we have in years with similar returns.  This means starting October 15, the daily limit for steelhead in the Clearwater River will be 2 fish of any size. For more details on the steelhead rules and seasons, please click on this link steelhead rules.

I want you to all be aware that we will be managing the Clearwater steelhead fishery a bit differently this year than we have in past years. The Nez Perce Tribe has indicated that they would like to harvest their portion of the harvest share which they are more than entitled to do. To ensure that we (sport anglers) don’t take more than our portion of the harvest share, we will be using creel surveys to estimate harvest similarly to how we monitor our spring Chinook Salmon fisheries. If we see more harvest is occurring than expected, we may be required to make adjustments to seasons or limits. To give us some feel for how likely this is to occur, we have looked at past data. What this data shows is that in some years when we had similar runs sizes as we are expecting this year, we would have exceeded our harvest share. We will provide you an update around mid-November to let you know how many fish have been harvested and whether we have any concerns.

I want to remind everybody that the Nez Perce Tribe is entitled to their harvest share and can use a multitude of strategies to catch these fish. In past years, they have mostly utilized rod-and-reel and stationary gill nets. There are others techniques they may also explore in the future such as drift nets, seins, and weirs/traps. In fact, the Nez Perce Tribe has let us know that they will be using drift nets this Wednesday and/or Thursday night (Sep 23-24) in the confluence area of the Snake and Clearwater rivers. This entails stretching out a net (about 150 ft long) by boat and then floating down river with the gear. A boat will be on one of end of the net and the other end will have a buoy with reflective tape on it. If you see this occurring, please give way to them. This is a popular strategy in some coastal rivers, and sport anglers and netters have learned to fish together in a manner where both parties catch fish. Help spread the word so others are aware and are courteous to all fishers on the river.

Finally, I need to mention what our wild steelhead return is looking like. The Technical Advisory Committee (a group of experts that estimate anadromous fish returns in the Columbia basin) met yesterday (September 21), and they are forecasting that around 7,900 unclipped B-Index steelhead (those steelhead greater than 31 inches) will be passing over Bonneville Dam this year. This is about 3.5 times higher than they originally forecasted. Many of these larger wild steelhead are destined for the Clearwater River basin. The figure below shows how many wild steelhead have returned to the Clearwater River basin from spawn year (the year the fish spawned) 2009 to 2019 based on genetic data collected at Lower Granite Dam. It should be noted that this data does not include the run of wild fish that spawned this spring (spawn year 2020).  Using the Technical Advisory Committee's forecast, we estimate that 4,000-5,000 wild steelhead will return to the Clearwater basin this year which is a great improvement over what we have seen in recent years.  We still have a ways to go, but it is certainly good to see improvements.  

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Joe DuPont


That is all I have you today.  As always, feel free to call or e-mail me if you have more questions.


Take care everybody.

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Joe DuPont

Steelhead caught in the Clearwater