It’s early, but fisheries managers are concerned.
The 2021 summer steelhead run on the Columbia and Snake rivers started July 1 and thus far is one of the worst on record. Through Monday, 21,892 steelhead had been counted at Bonneville Dam on the Columbia River and just 494 at Lower Granite Dam on the Snake River.
The count on the Columbia is second worst only to 1943 when 20,293 had been recorded passing the dam as of Aug. 16.
“Back then they harvested a large percentage of the steelhead before they hit the dams. One could argue at least for this date, this is the worst steelhead run past the Bonneville area ever,” said Joe DuPont, regional fisheries manager for the Idaho Department of Fish and Game at Lewiston.
DuPont said the agency is continuing to monitor counts but not yet ready to change regulations in response to the low numbers. He noted there have been years such as 2017 when the department reacted to low numbers with regulation changes only to have numbers rise within a matter of days.
“I don’t want to repeat that,” he said. “Likely we will make a decision in mid-August, and the (Idaho Fish and Game) Commission has a meeting in September, and we will present the run data to them.”
The number of steelhead over Lower Granite Dam is so low that making a change to open catch-and-release or harvest seasons now would have little effect. DuPont said, if necessary, Idaho Fish and Game Director Ed Schriever can issue emergency closures before the September meeting.
According to a fact sheet published by fisheries managers from Oregon, Washington and Columbia River Indian tribes, the steelhead run at Bonneville Dam through Aug. 10 was just 19 percent of the 10-year average for that date.
“That is low, and I think it’s fairly safe to say it’s not going to be good,” said DuPont. “We are just hoping it’s good enough to provide a fishery and maintain the wild runs.”
Anglers are allowed to catch and keep hatchery steelhead during open harvest seasons. Wild Snake River steelhead are protected as threatened under the Endangered Species Act and can not be harvested.
Typically, 43 percent of the steelhead run, as measured from July 1 to Oct. 31, passes Bonneville Dam by Aug. 10. DuPont said he hopes this run is late and not just low.
“Things are so hot. We have that in the back of our mind — maybe these fish can sense that and are holding back,” he said.
The Snake, Salmon and Clearwater rivers are open to catch-and-release fishing. A short section of the Clearwater, from its mouth to Memorial Bridge at Lewiston opened to hatchery steelhead harvest on Aug. 1.
The Snake and Salmon rivers open to harvest on Sept. 1. The Clearwater River upstream of Memorial Bridge opens to harvest on Oct. 15.
The preseason steelhead forecast called for a return of about 96,800 steelhead to Bonneville Dam, including 89,200 A-run and 7,600 B-run fish. The A-run is forecast to include about 27,500 wild fish and the B-run is predicted to include only about 1,000 wild fish.
In 2020, 75,392 A-run, and 32,199 B-run steelhead returned at least as far as a Bonneville Dam on the Columbia River. The return was 112 percent of the preseason forecast and 49 percent of the 10-year average. Last year, 59,126 steelhead were counted at Lower Granite Dam on the Snake River. That included 20,453 B-run fish and 38,673 A-run fish.