by Eric Barker
Fisheries officials are predicting a small return of spring chinook salmon to the Clearwater River
Jacks, the overly eager salmon that return from the ocean before they have grown to full size, could be the saving grace of spring chinook fishing on the Clearwater River.
This year's return of spring chinook to the Clearwater and its tributaries is predicted to be just over the threshold needed to hold a fishing season. Fisheries managers are expecting the state's harvest share could be as low as 300 adults. For context, last year the state had a harvest share of about 5,000 adults on the Clearwater.
Because of the low return, biologists are proposing to start with conservative regulations and expand fishing opportunities if the run comes in as strong or stronger than forecasted.
"We are expecting to hold a fishery, even if it is a limited, jack-only fishery," said Idaho Fish and Game biologist Don Whitney.
Fisheries managers are in the process of laying out a fishing proposal that will be presented to the Idaho Fish and Game Commission later this spring. They are holding a series of public meetings in the Clearwater region starting Monday to gather ideas from anglers.
Whitney said the department is likely to propose the spring chinook fishing season start with a jacks-only rule and be opened to limited adult harvest if the run materializes. Because of the low harvest share, adult bag limits could be one per day, with fishing allowed only four days a weeks. Some areas, such as the Lochsa River, might not open at all.
If the jack run is robust, fishing for them could be allowed seven days a week. Jacks, however, are nearly impossible to predict.
The harvest share on the Salmon River is forecast at about 2,000 adults, which is about half of what it was last year. Whitney said the state could propose a one-adult bag limit on popular areas like the Park Hole at Riggins and the Little Salmon River, while allowing anglers to keep two adults per day between Hammer Creek and Time Zone Bridge.
Fishing seasons are based on the number of chinook - above and beyond those needed for spawning at hatcheries - that make it all the way up river. Known as the harvestable surplus, the number is equally divided between tribal and non-tribal anglers.
A total of about 141,000 hatchery-born spring chinook bound for the Columbia River and its tributaries above Bonneville Dam are expected to nose into the river this year. About 58,000 of those will be bound for the Snake River basin. Some of those will be caught downriver or die along the way.
Whitney said the state's share of the Clearwater-bound fish could be as high as 750 on paper. However, biologists feel like they need to be more conservative to ensure enough spawning adults make it to collection sites high in the basin such as Powell on the Lochsa River and Red River at the headwaters of the South Fork Clearwater River. He estimated the state would start with a harvest share of about 300.
Options for spring chinook fishing on the Clearwater River include:
Those disappointed at the small run can at least look forward to fall chinook fishing. Fisheries managers are forecasting a record return of fall chinook, some of which are bound for the Snake River and its tributaries.
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