by Scott Staats
Idaho State Journal, April 4, 2010
Large chunks of ice still line the banks and an upriver breeze sends a chill to the bone. Mornings can be cold along the Salmon River. But anglers warm up quickly when a 5- to 10-pound steelhead strikes.
So it was with Verl Evans from Inkom and his friend Kevin Koompin from Blackfoot on a recent fishing trip to the river. Officials say this is one of the best steelhead runs in recent memory.
"Fish on," yells Koompin, as Evans reels in quickly, sets the rod down and goes to assist with landing the colorful Salmon River steelhead.
"Another hatchery fish," says Evans as he grabs the fish by the tail. This meant adding it to the stringer and to a future menu.
Evans already caught one fish earlier, as did his wife, Brenda, who fished about 50 feet upriver. They were averaging a keeper fish per hour that morning.
This was their third time on the river this year and this latest catch added up to about a dozen keeper fish. They were using a hook, yarn and corky, and started fishing at daylight in a hole downriver of the confluence with the Pahsimeroi River.
"This has been one of the best years yet for steelhead fishing," says Evans as he casts into the current.
Just downriver from Evans, Tucker Bahlke and his family, also coincidentally from Inkom, were camping at a Bureau of Land Management campground and trying their luck along the bank. At this point in the trip, the Bahlke crew had caught about a dozen fish, including Bahlke's son Derick's first steelhead ever. Even though it was a wild fish and had to be released, Derick said he didn't mind.
Anglers up and down the river were having good luck. That's probably no surprise, since biologists are calling this steelhead run one of the biggest on record for the upper Salmon River.
"This year's run is probably the largest since the construction of Lower Granite Dam (1965-1972)," said Jon Hansen, regional fisheries biologist for the Idaho Department of Fish and Game in Salmon.
As many as 12,000 fish are expected to reach the Sawtooth Fish Hatchery. In an average year, about 4,000 fish make it upriver. The rule of thumb is that about half the run will be caught, so if 12,000 fish reach the hatchery that means that about 24,000 fish are in the river. No wonder anglers are having good luck.
Hansen said the steelhead run usually reaches its peak around mid-April. The run has been a little late this year due to a mild winter and cool spring (Stanley reported about 8 inches of snow recently). Fishing season for steelhead ends April 30.
Steelhead in the river now entered the Columbia River last summer, and Hansen estimates that about 80 percent of the fish wintered in the river below North Fork, hanging out in the deeper holes and areas influenced by hot springs.
Idaho Fish and Game employees will be busy this year spawning steelhead at both the Pahsimeroi and Sawtooth fish hatcheries.
"We spawn all the hatchery fish," said Mel Hughes, assistant manager at the Sawtooth Fish Hatchery. "We'll take a million to a million and a half eggs for the next year's production."
Eggs eventually make their way to Hagerman National Hatchery and Magic Valley Hatchery where they are raised to smolts (about 6 inches long).
Starting in a few weeks, there will be between 2.5 and 3 million smolts released at various locations in the Salmon River drainage, where they'll get their chemical imprint, head for the ocean and eventually make their way back upriver in a year or two as a 20- to 30-inch adult.
The steelhead coming upriver and the smolts going downriver will literally be passing each other. Hansen said some anglers complain when smolts are released since the young fish tend to eat the bait intended for their grandparents.
The fish that reach the Sawtooth Fish Hatchery will have traveled almost 1,000 miles from the Pacific Ocean. That's no easy feat, considering they have to pass over eight dams and run the gauntlet of anxious anglers.
"The fish, both smolts and adults, have many hardships with dams being about the largest," Hughes explained. "Stress is the biggest killer of fish, and young fish in these reservoirs are under great stress from predators, heat, crowding, humans, etc."
According to Hughes, dams create long reservoirs with little current, and the smolts need the flush-water of a natural river system. If there were no dams, smolts would reach the ocean in a week to 10 days during spring runoff, but now it could take two to three weeks.
Although dams have a major impact on survival for both adult steelhead and smolts, other factors such as predation and ocean conditions also play a role.
On the banks of another likely fishing hole, Kevin Baird and John Clark, from the Preston area, had been fishing all morning without a strike. They said no one along that particular stretch of river had caught anything yet. No sooner were the words spoken when an angler further upriver and on the opposite bank had a fish. On the next cast his partner pulled a steelhead to shore. Two casts later, the first angler landed another fish -- three fish in four casts for the pair. Such is steelhead fishing on the Salmon River.
"It's going to be a good run, and both hatcheries are expecting a considerable amount of fish," Hansen said. "So we're encouraging people to get out and do some fishing and take advantage of the opportunity."
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