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Ecology and salmon related articles

Run for the Record

by Eric Barker
Lewiston Tribune, October 11, 2001

2001 steelhead counts are on track to be among best ever

This year's steelhead run has already seen more fish counted at Lower Granite Dam, 35 miles west of Clarkston, than were counted there all of last year.

Through Tuesday, 163,863 steelhead had been counted at the dam. Last year's total from June 1 through the end of the year was 109,446, and that was considered a tremendous run.

This year's run has already outpaced the best steelhead run on record since the dams were built. That was 1989, when about 131,000 steelhead were counted at Lower Granite. Generally, any run of more than 100,000 steelhead is considered a good one and this year's run, which could hit 200,000 fish, seems destined to enter the record books.

But biologists like Sharon Kiefer, anadromous fish manager for the Idaho Department of Fish and Game at Boise, say the run should come marked with an asterisk, since the vast majority of the steelhead returning this year were produced at hatcheries and are not the progeny of wild steelhead.

The hatchery fish are intended for sport and tribal harvest and are produced to make up for loses caused by the region's dams. Wild steelhead, along with several salmon stocks, are protected under the Endangered Species Act and are the subject of an intensive recovery effort throughout the Northwest.

Sadly, Kiefer said there is little reason to expect runs like this year's blockbuster to continue.

"The suspicion is, of course, that this is somewhat ephemeral," she said. "It is so dependent on Mother Nature and Mother Nature is not consistent."

Most biologists credit this year's run with high river flows present when the fish that are returning this fall left as juveniles two and three years ago. But ocean conditions have also pulled out of a long-term slump and fish seem to be returning in better condition and larger than they have in years past.

Snake River salmon and steelhead runs are expected to take a dive in 2003 when this year's juveniles return. That's because they experienced some of the lowest river flows in decades, the result of low snowpacks in the mountains and a dry spring and summer. But continuing favorable ocean conditions could help make up for poor migration conditions.

Most of the fish that have crossed Ice Harbor Dam, 129 miles west of Lewiston and the first dam on the Snake River, will also cross Lower Granite, according to Kiefer. Through Tuesday, about 210,487 steelhead had crossed the dam, increasing the chances that the run past Granite will hit the projected 200,000 mark.

"What we are watching now is how quickly it will taper off," she said.

The peak of the run generally comes during the last few days of September, and that seems to be happening this year, with a high of 11,930 fish tallied at the dam Sept. 29. Totals have been slowly decreasing since then, but remain between 2,000 to 4,000 fish per day.

Actual fishing on the Snake and Clearwater River has been mixed. Recent creel surveys indicate hot fishing on the Snake River and good fishing on the lower Clearwater.

But the unprecedented number of fish coming over the dam has not translated into outstanding fishing. That could change, and fast.

Quickly shortening days and cooler temperatures are dropping water temperatures, which should result in increased fish activity.

"To my understanding, we have had plenty of fish over the dam for quite some time but water temperatures have been such that it hasn't been the most effective weather for fish biting," Kiefer said.

Her colleague, Ed Schriever, regional fish biologist at Lewiston, agreed, and said water temperatures are falling fast.

"Sharpen your hooks," he said in anticipation of what could be fantastic fishing by the time the Clearwater catch-and-keep season on hatchery steelhead opens Monday. "I think water temperatures are going to cool down."

The Snake River, which has seen the best fishing recently according to Idaho Department of Fish and Game creel surveys, was 63 degrees Monday. The Salmon was 58 and the Clearwater 52.

Bob Zimmerman of Hook Line and Sinker Tackle shop in Riggins reported the Salmon River is both clearing and cooling and that is improving fishing conditions.

"Fishing is starting to improve," he said. "It's not real hot but it's looking good. Conditions are really improving rapidly with the cool water."

The steelhead have been very active, with anglers seeing lots of fish rolling and jumping. But they seem to be starting to settle down and that should improve the bite, he said.

On the Clearwater River, the B-run steelhead are beginning to replace A-run steelhead, according to Stu Kestner of the Riverside Sport Shop in Orofino. A-run fish typically take a detour and spend some time in the Clearwater before moving up the Snake and Salmon rivers.

"I got a feeling when the season opener hits there is going to be lots of fish for the guys."

Kestner said the river is as low as he has seen it in 17 years, and that could present some problems for power boaters.

"For guys in drift boats it's not a problem. Guys in jetboats will have to restrict their movement until there is more water," he said.

Wednesday, the Clearwater River at Spalding was running 2,590 cubic feet per second. The long-term average for this time of year is nearly 4,000 cfs. The Salmon River at White Bird was running about 2,900 cubic feet per second Wednesday. The long-term average there for this time of year is about 4,700 cfs.

Eric Barker
Run for the Record
Lewiston Tribune, October 11, 2001

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