By Evin Oneale, Idaho Department of Fish and Game
Chinook salmon season veterans on Little Salmon River near Riggins fully understand the challenges of fishing the high-gradient flume and the almost zoo-like atmosphere that grips the area when the big fish begin their move upriver.
This year's snow pack, combined with a predicted robust run of hatchery salmon, is sure to heighten both the challenge and the atmosphere on the "Little River."
But as with most things, change has come to salmon fishing on the Little Salmon River.
Salmon seasons for the Main Salmon and Little Salmon Rivers were recently set by the Fish and Game Commission. Season dates are April 26 to June 22 on the Main Salmon River and April 26 to August 3 on the Little Salmon River - or until further notice. Daily bag and possession limits are three and nine fish respectively. Anglers possessing a valid fishing license and salmon permit may harvest 40 hatchery Chinook for the season.
In addition, anglers may keep two Chinook jacks per day, but they don't count toward the total daily limit adult Chinook.
Changes on the River
Expected high returns of hatchery salmon will undoubtedly bring out scores of eager salmon anglers. They will rake their gear in a pile and pinch the barbs on the salmon hooks in anticipation. But significant access changes await them along the most popular stretch of the Little Salmon River at the area affectionately known as the swinging bridge.
Perhaps most noticeable is the bridge's absence; it has been replaced with a new steel variety. Gone too is access to the east side of the river. When this property changed hands in 2003, the new owner continued to allow angling access to both sides of the river in the vicinity of the old swinging bridge.
But no more. Exercising his right to allow or decline access, the landowner has chosen to do the latter. A fence festooned with no-trespassing signs has been built between the river and the highway, to define private land, stretching both directions from the bridge along Highway 95.
What it all means is fishing for hatchery Chinook on the Little Salmon below its confluence with Rapid River will be much more limited. Anglers can still get to the river - via private property - on a strip of land about 100 yards downriver of the steel bridge. Anglers also may fish the river from the Rapid River confluence downstream to the Key Milling Co. site - which sits roughly 250 yards upstream of the steel bridge.
Anglers will be unable to reach the east side of the river along this entire reach.
There's more. Parking along Highway 95 near the steel bridge will be more confined because of the new fence. Vehicles must be entirely outside the white line marking the edge of the highway, and parking will not be allowed immediately in front of the steel bridge access.
Day-use parking and fishing access will remain available on the Pasture Hole Flat and the Lower Bluff Hole Flat (also known as the Cliff Hole). But anglers will need to clear out by one hour after sundown; no overnight parking, camping or campfires will be allowed at either site. Officers from the Idaho County Sheriff's Department and Fish and Game will be enforcing these rules.
These changes don't have to throw a wrench in anybody's salmon season camping plans; good alternatives exist. Several RV parks and motels are available in the Riggins area. Check out the Riggins Chamber of Commerce Website (www.rigginsidaho.com) for RV park and lodging information, and consider helping out the local economy during the salmon season.
If primitive camping is more your style, Short's Bar camping area is just upstream of Riggins along the Main Salmon River, and Island Bar camping area is another 1 1/2 miles above Short's. Both are operated by the Bureau of Land Management and offer self-contained camping opportunities. Access these sites via Big Salmon Road just south of downtown Riggins.
Remember also that Big Salmon Road is under construction and vehicle travel is limited daily - except weekends - upriver from Short's Bar. The latest construction details and travel restrictions are available at: www.salmonriverroad.org.
Fish, Fish Everywhere
Meanwhile, fisheries managers are deliberating what to do with a predicted run of more than 9,000 sport harvest hatchery Chinook bound for the Rapid River Hatchery. One option involves "recycling" fish - taking them out of the trap at Rapid River, loading them on a truck and putting them back in the main Salmon River near the Riggins boat ramp. These fish will have to swim past eager anglers again to reach the hatchery.
Some fish may be released at points along the Little Salmon above Rapid River to spread fish and anglers along the length of the Little Salmon. And finally, anglers will have to be a little more creative, perhaps abandoning traditional fishing spots, and instead moving to prime fishing locations on the main Salmon.
To encourage this behavior, the upper fishing boundary on the main Salmon River - traditionally the mouth of the Little Salmon River - has been extended to Short's Creek, another 1 1/2 miles upstream of the mouth of the Little Salmon River.
Boat anglers can help relieve bank angler congestion. Even one or two boats parked on the west bank of the Salmon River between the City Park boat ramp and the mouth of the Little Salmon River can block fishing opportunity for dozens of bank anglers.
Much of the fishing access along the Little Salmon's west side is available this year thanks to landowner generosity. It could be lost next year if salmon anglers fail to behave themselves this season. That means anglers need to be respectful of private ground, by picking up their trash and otherwise treating the area as if they owned it.
Anglers whose spring plans include fishing the Little Salmon River, will need a fishing license and a salmon tag. They will also need to think creatively and bring a double dose of patience to come away with a satisfying experience.
And of course, everyone is welcome to contact the local Fish and Game office to discuss the finer points of this year's Chinook salmon season on the Little Salmon River.
Evin Oneale is the regional conservation educator for the Southwest Region.