by Eric Barker
Salmon face gauntlet of anglers
With more than 200,000 steelhead counted at Lower Granite Dam, 35 miles west of Clarkston, this fall should prove to be one of the best fishing seasons in memory.
Statistics compiled by the Idaho Department of Fish and Game show the season is off to a good start. Anglers averaged 11 hours of fishing per fish caught on the lower Clearwater River last weekend and nine hours on the Snake River. On the Salmon River between Riggins and White Bird, anglers had to fish an average of 12 hours to catch a steelhead.
"With this many fish over Granite, I think we are going to have good fishing all the way into December," said Larry Barrett of the Idaho Department of Fish and Game at Lewiston.
Rain should continue to pull B-run steelhead out of Lower Granite Reservoir and into the rivers, according to Barrett, but too much rain at once could muddy the water and foul fishing conditions. The Salmon River continues to be vulnerable to murkiness -- likely a negative effective from wildfires that swept the headwaters two summers ago.
"Those things will be with us a little while," Barrett said.
Anglers drifting eggs seem to be doing the best, he said, but nighttime anglers using lighted lures also are doing well.
Fish and Game workers continue to find people who are mistakenly keeping salmon. Although steelhead are the dominant species of anadromous fish in the Snake, Salmon and Clearwater rivers, there are a fair number of fall chinook and coho salmon in the same waters. To complicate matters further, some of the salmon have had their adipose fins removed.
Because of that, anglers need to carefully identify their catch before deciding whether or not it's a keeper.
Steelhead have white gums and white mouths and tongues. Coho also have white gums but the bottom of their mouths and tongues should be dark gray to black. They often can be identified by a large white flap on their nostrils and a lack of spotting on their tails.
Fall chinook have black gums and black mouths, are often dark in color and have large, irregularly shaped spots.
Fall chinook are listed as a threatened species in the Snake, Salmon and Clearwater rivers. Nonetheless, it is not uncommon for anglers to hook them, and Barrett said some guides report hooking several a day. Coho were declared extinct in 1987, but are making a comeback due to efforts by the Nez Perce Tribe to re-establish the run.
Their numbers are still low but have increased each of the last three years. Last year some 800 coho returned to the Clearwater River, and tribal biologists say as many as 3,000 may return this year.
However, thus far this fall, just 274 have been counted at Lower Granite Dam. Aaron Penney, a tribal biologist, thinks the counts could be low because coho can often be mistaken for steelhead and the sheer number of steelhead passing the dam could make quick identification even more difficult.
The tribe began its effort to revive the run in 1994 and has used surplus eggs taken from hatcheries in the lower Columbia River and the Willamette River. The goal, according to Penney, is to have the run reach a point where it is self-sustaining and both tribal and nontribal harvest can occur.
So far this year, one coho has shown up at a weir on Potlatch Creek and 36 at the Dworshak National Fish Hatchery at Ahsahka, where many of them are produced and reared by the tribe.
The fish ladder at the hatchery is open and a total of 91 steelhead have entered the facility. Ralph Roseberg, a biologist at the hatchery, said the ladder will remain open until 500 early returning steelhead have been collected. The ladder will reopen in the spring when Roseberg hopes to collect at least 2,500. He said there shouldn't be much trouble meeting the goals this year and encourages anglers to catch and keep hatchery steelhead.
"This is going to be year when we are going to have a surplus at the hatchery. I'd rather see people catch them and keep them."
Like Barrett, Roseberg said fishing on the Clearwater River has been good. He uses a less scientific method to measure fishing success but claims it's just as accurate as the state's survey of anglers. Several of his coworkers spend their free time catching fish when they aren't making fish. When the fishing is good, they all do well; when it's poor, only the skilled anglers catch steelhead.
"Some of the guys I work with that are really lame fisherman are catching the heck out of them," he said.
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