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Rule Changes on Clearwater River

October 24, 2013 - 2:40pm -- idfg-vosborn

Hi everybody, we are implementing rule changes for steelhead fishing on the Clearwater River that you all should be aware of.  First I will let you know what the rule changes are and then I will let you know why we made these changes.

Starting on the season opener (October 15, 2013), for the entire Clearwater River basin where steelhead fishing is allowed, the limit will be 1 adipose clipped steelhead, 2 in possession (see attachment). 

In addition, from the mouth of the Clearwater River upstream to the Orofino Bridge including the North Fork Clearwater River, only adipose clipped steelhead less than or equal to 28 inches can be harvested.

These rules will apply for both the fall and spring seasons which means they will remain in effect through April 30, 2014 after which the steelhead season closes in the Clearwater River basin.

Obviously, with these rules, people will be needing to measure some of these fish to make sure they are legal.  Here are my recommendations to minimize handling mortality.  If the fish is clearly larger than 28 inches don’t take it out of the water unless you want to take a quick picture.  For those fish close to 28 inches, put some marks on the outside of your boat that you can rest the fish against to check it’s length against (you may be able to do this without taking the fish out of the net).  This will help prevent people from dropping a struggling fish in the bottom of their boat increasing the likelihood of handling mortality.  For bank anglers, try to keep the fish in the water while measuring it.  If you turn a steelhead upside down while in the water, it tends to remain calm allowing you to accurately measure this fish (this requires two of you though). 

I imagine, for some of you, these rule changes have your blood boiling.  Please bear with me and read on so you understand why we had to make these rule changes.

Typically, we collect about 80-90% of the Clearwater River basin’s steelhead brood stock at Dworshak Hatchery depending on how many fish we can collect during our localized brood stock efforts in the South Fork Clearwater River (collected by anglers) and at Kooskia Hatchery.  Our total brood stock needs are around 2,000 fish which means we should trap around 1,700 fish at Dworshak Hatchery to be sure we meet our brood needs.  In addition, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is charged with conserving and perpetuating the NF Clearwater steelhead stock to the best of their ability, and a couple traits that they try to maintain in this steelhead population are a broad spectrum of return and spawn timing and a dominance of the 2-ocean life history.  As such, we just don’t want to spawn any fish that arrives at the hatchery.  We want to make sure we collect fish from early in the run and from late in the run.  In addition, the majority (~95%) of steelhead we spawn are the 2 and 3-ocean fish (these fish tend to be greater than 28 inches) to make sure we maintain that larger size structure the Clearwater River basin is famous for.   So, if you look at the table below, you will see we are forecasting (based on PIT tag returns at Bonneville Dam) a return of 1,948 2 and 3-ocean steelhead destined for Dworshak Hatchery.  If we need 1,700 of these fish to make it to Dworshak Hatchery for brood purposes, that doesn’t leave much for tribal and non-tribal harvest.  In fact, the only way we feel confident that we can get the necessary fish to Dworshak Hatchery is to restrict all harvest of these 2 and 3-ocean fish (those fish greater than 28 inches) as we know some of these fish will not make it to the hatchery for natural reasons (straying or natural mortality) and others will die from catch and release practices.  Because we spawn very few of the 1-ocean fish, it makes sense that we allow them to be harvested and is the reason why you will be able to keep steelhead less than or equal to 28 inches downstream of Orofino Bridge including the North Fork.  Notice that about 40% of the steelhead returning to Dworshak Hatchery will be 1-ocean fish.  Very few (< 10%) of the Dworshak released fish venture upstream of the Orofino Bridge and is why upstream of this location we will allow harvest of all sizes of  steelhead.

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If you are wondering how this Dworshak hatchery return compares to past returns, the table below shows the returns of 2 and 3-ocean fish since the 1994-5 run year.  You will notice that this year’s run (1,948 fish) is projected to be less than half the previous low for these years.  For the 1994-5 run we had a 2-fish limit with no size restrictions and Dworshak Hatchery did not meet its brood needs that year (500 fish short).  For the 1995-6 run, we implemented catch-and-release rules through Dec 31 and Dworshak Hatchery exceeded its brood needs by almost 2,000 fish (evidence that restrictive rules can make a big difference).  Since the 1995-6 run year, the daily limit for the fall steelhead fishery has been 2 fish with no size restriction – until now.  We met our brood needs every one of those years.  Over these years, the data suggest we harvest anywhere from 40 to 70% of the fish that enter the fishery and it seems that during the smaller runs we tend to harvest a higher percent of the fish.

One last thing I will leave you with.  Many of you may chose not to fish the Clearwater River this year due to the projected low return and restrictive rules, but let me remind you that often when fishing pressure is low catching can be quite good even during low run years.  Larry Barrett told me many times about his favorite day of steelhead fishing.  It actually occurred in the winter of 1995 when only catch-and-release fishing was allowed due to the low run size.  He caught over 30 steelhead on that particular day without hardly seeing another person.  And although he had to release all of the fish he caught, this incredible memory lasted with him until the day he died.  - Joe DuPont, Clearwater Region Fishery Manager