1961 - Saving Salmon & Steelhead

Although salmon and steelhead stocks were diminished from historic numbers at the time the Idaho Fish and Game was created, the late 1930s and early 1940s still were good times for salmon and steelhead anglers in Idaho.  Salmon and steelhead fishing was open year-round in those areas where they were still present. A newspaper article from Salmon’s Recorder Herald in April of 1949 reported an angler catching a 38 pound salmon on the Salmon River about 18 miles upstream of the town of Salmon.  Sport catches of salmon and steelhead exceeded 30,000 fish of each species in the best years of the 1950s.

From those inaugural days of the Department, management of these great fish resources would start to occupy more and more of the Department’s time. Management was still relatively simple as all of the fish harvested were wild origin, being naturally produced in the streams to which they returned. Sport catches of salmon remained relatively high in the early 1960s, averaging slightly more than 12,000 fish per year from 1961 through 1963. In 1967 Idaho sport anglers harvested and estimated 24,500 steelhead.

In the 1960s, salmon and steelhead resources and fisheries management changed dramatically. The numbers of salmon and steelhead returning to the state were in steep decline. At the same time, hatcheries were starting to be built to mitigate for the impacts of hydropower development in the Snake River basin.  The first two hatcheries to be built were Kooskia (1961) in the Clearwater River basin and Oxbow (1966) on the Snake River. That was the start of what would become a long history of hatchery mitigation and production in the Snake River basin.

As the hatcheries came on-line and started to release fish, fisheries started to change from wild-fish-dominated to hatchery-fish-dominated. Rapid River Hatchery, the largest spring Chinook salmon producer in the Snake River basin, began contributing salmon to harvest in the Little Salmon River fishery in 1967. In that year the Little Salmon River fishery was only 3% of the statewide total salmon harvest. By 1977, Chinook salmon harvest in the Little Salmon River was 37% of the statewide total and was predominately fish produced by Rapid River Hatchery; all other harvest was of wild fish. Similar changes were occurring in Idaho’s steelhead sport fishery. Dworshak and Pahsimeroi hatchery stocks were started in 1969. As hatchery production increased, more and more hatchery fish were being harvested in the fisheries.

While hatchery production was increasing, the numbers of wild salmon and steelhead were in severe decline. Salmon and steelhead were showing the effects of years of high harvest in fisheries outside of Idaho and the construction of four dams on the lower Snake River from 1962 to 1972. Declines in these runs had dramatic effects on Idaho’s fisheries. The last record of steelhead sport harvest in the Lochsa, Selway, South Fork Salmon and Middle Fork Salmon rivers was in 1973. In 1974, only 3,000 steelhead were harvested statewide in Idaho and no harvest was allowed in 1975. Many river sections (e.g. Valley Creek, Marsh Creek, Pahsimeroi River) were also being closed to salmon fishing during this time period.

Steelhead fisheries from 1975 to 1980 were very restrictive. In contrast to all waters being open year-round in the 1950s, fishing was allowed only in the mainstem Snake, Salmon and Clearwater rivers and specific spring and fall seasons were set. There were no Chinook salmon seasons from 1979 through 1984 and since 1988 there was an additional six years when no salmon fishery was opened.

The importance of Idaho’s anadromous mitigation hatchery program is demonstrated in the fact that since 1985, all salmon and steelhead sport fisheries have targeted only fish that were released from hatcheries. Starting in the fall on 1987, the harvest of steelhead was restricted to only hatchery fish with a clipped adipose fin. Idaho initiated actions to implement that rule several years earlier by planning and developing a program to clip the adipose fin of all hatchery fish before release. Those conservation actions were in effect well before the Endangered Species Act listing of steelhead in 1997 prohibited the taking of wild fish.

Today, except for spring Chinook salmon in the Clearwater River, all naturally produced salmon and steelhead returning to Idaho are listed as either Threatened or Endangered under the Endangered Species Act. Those listings resulted in more restrictive fisheries and special rules but haven’t prevented anglers from continuing to fish for the magnificent salmon and steelhead. The special marking program that allow anglers to identify a fish as hatchery origin coupled with protective regulations allow for fisheries on hatchery fish without adversely impacting the listed natural origin fish.

Sport fisheries for hatchery salmon and steelhead are expected to continue into the future while fish managers work to rebuild ESA-listed natural stocks. Hatcheries operated by the Idaho Department of Fish and Game annually released about 10 million spring/summer Chinook salmon, 1 million fall Chinook salmon, 4.1 million steelhead and 0.3 million sockeye salmon juveniles in recent years. With the exception of the current sockeye salmon releases, these fish are expected to return from the ocean two to three years after their release and contribute to sport and tribal fisheries throughout the basin. Future releases of hatchery-produced fish are expected to be similar except for sockeye salmon. The sockeye salmon hatchery program is a conservation program design to conserve and rebuild that run. That program was expanded with the recent completion of Idaho’s newest anadromous hatchery (Springfield) and in the near future is expected to release one million juvenile sockeye each year.

Management of salmon and steelhead today is much more complex than it was 75 years ago. All fish produced in Idaho must navigate past eight hydroelectric dams during their migration to the ocean as well as fish and avian predators that thrive in the altered migration corridor that leads to the ocean. After surviving whatever fate Mother Nature and our human influences present the growing fish in the ocean, they must navigate upstream past fisheries, more predators, and the same eight hydroelectric dams to return to Idaho. Intricate monitoring programs are in place to track the status of both hatchery and naturally produced fish.

Despite the challenges faced by the fish and fish managers, the numbers of adult fish returning to Idaho show a positive trend in recent years. The numbers of returning adult fish that were produced in nature have been slowly increasing for the extreme lows observed in the mid-1990s. Every year since the year 2000 sport anglers in Idaho have been able to enjoy steelhead and Chinook salmon fishing. Although anglers are restricted from fishing many of the waters historically fished when Idaho Fish and Game was first formed, salmon and steelhead still provide a unique and highly valued fishery resource.