Anglers in the Riggins area have been complaining that they are catching mostly steelhead with unclipped adipose fins, and that means they have to release them.
There's a good reason for that, and it is in part a measure of their own success.
Most hatchery-raised steelhead have their adipose fin-the small fin on the back just ahead of the tail-clipped to identify them as hatchery fish and therefore legally harvestable. Most fish with an intact adipose fin are wild and must be released.
As part of an ongoing negotiated court settlement of the federal court's 1969 U.S. v. Oregon case, still under court jurisdiction, a portion of the hatchery fish released in Idaho must be allowed the opportunity to spawn naturally. To that end, the adipose fins on a portion of the steelhead and salmon raised at Idaho hatcheries are not clipped.
The number varies with drainages across the state. In the Little Salmon, about 15 percent of the steelhead are unclipped. The unclipped fish are expected to return and spawn naturally in hopes of establishing or augmenting native runs.
When they return, marked as well as unmarked, they tend to congregate near the boat ramp at the confluence of the Little Salmon and Salmon rivers before heading upstream to spawn. Anglers are allowed to fish for the returning hatchery steelhead. They must release the unclipped ones.
As the marked fish are caught and taken from the river-and the unmarked ones left behind-the ratio of unmarked fish in the school rises. Soon it begins to seem to anglers that no marked hatchery fish were released in the river.
The steelhead, however; marked or otherwise, will begin moving as the water warms. As the water warms in the Little Salmon, steelhead will likely mix with other pods of fish and more fin-clipped steelhead should begin to show up. Steelhead are moving upstream to spawn, starting in the first couple of weeks of April.