Deadwood Reservoir and Educated Fish

Kokanee Weir / Photo by Art Butts

Back to School by Art Butts, Fisheries Biologist, Idaho Department of Fish and Game - Southwest Region

As we head into the late summer, parents and kids become preoccupied with getting "back to school." For many of us at Idaho Fish and Game, late summer is a time when we become preoccupied with schools of another kind – schools of kokanee that is, beginning to ascend many of our local rivers.

Kokanee are miniature forms of sockeye salmon that spend their entire life in freshwater. They mature at two to three years of age, when they turn red and take on the spawning characteristics of their ocean-returning relatives. Males develop elongated hooked jaws and humped backs. Females remain slender except for their bulging abdomen full of eggs.

Idaho is home to both early and late-run Kokanee. Early-run Kokanee spawn in August and September; the Kokanee die soon after spawning, their bodies providing valuable nutrients to sterile spopulations around Boise are of this variety. Late-run Kokanee spawn in November and December. Spawning Kokanee either migrate into a lake tributary or, in some cases, spawn on the lake shoreline. Like their anadromous brethren, Kokanee tream environments. This boosts the productivity of the stream food web: more algae grow more aquatic insects for their progeny and other fish to feed upon.

Close to Boise, people travel to Mores or Grimes Creeks or the South Fork Boise River to witness this spawning exhibition. The bright red fish dig redds (egg nests) in the stream gravel and fight off competitors for mates or prime redd locations. Kokanee fishing during these spawning runs is a popular activity. However, spawning kokanee can be finicky as they are more interested in spawning, rather than eating. Silver spinners or orange-colored flies are popular offerings. Early in the run, kokanee offer good table fair with many people preferring to can or smoke the fillets. As spawning approaches, Kokanee become poor table fair as their muscles begin to deteriorate. Even late in the spawning run, aggressive and territorial males will still strike lures and flies. In Idaho, there is no snagging season for game fish, including kokanee, and any fish not hooked in the mouth or jaw must be released.

Kokanee fishing is becoming more popular throughout the western United States. A decade ago, Kokanee fishing might have been too specialized for most. It was a sport best suited for those persons with unlimited patience and willing to spend all day trolling. Now, Kokanee are on the cover of popular angling magazines. Websites and social media report on all the latest fishing techniques, news, and gear. Larger sections of tackle aisles are filled with specialized kokanee gear. Better gear and more informed anglers have led to higher catches.

No better example of the increase in Kokanee popularity exists than the one found right here in the Treasure Valley. The nearby Kokanee populations at Arrowrock and Lucky Peak Reservoirs are among the best in the west for catch rates and fish size. In 2011, anglers made around 66,000 trips and spent almost $4.8 million in fishing-related expenses at the two reservoirs. An increased statewide demand for the fish is reflected in the number of Kokanee stocked by Fish and Game. Just a few years ago in 2010, the department stocked 1.4 million Kokanee into 13 lakes. In 2014, 2.4 million Kokanee were stocked into 17 lakes.

Kokanee management can be difficult and is focused on finding a desirable balance between catch rates and fish size. Enough spawning fish are needed to seed a new year class, but not so many that members of the new year class become stunted. Kokanee exhibit a density-dependent relationship between fish growth and lake productivity. When adult Kokanee are small – say less than 10 inches – there are likely too many Kokanee. Vise-versa, if adult Kokanee start exceeding 20 inches, there are likely too few Kokanee to provide desired catch rates. Finding the balance between growth and density is tricky business and specific to each water body.

The source for most of Idaho’s hatchery Kokanee is Deadwood Reservoir, about 45 miles east of Cascade, Idaho. Early each August, a fish weir is constructed across the Deadwood River, and during the next four to six weeks, Kokanee are trapped and spawned at the site. Fertilized eggs are then flown from a nearby backcountry air strip to Cabinet Gorge Hatchery in Clark Fork, Idaho.

Fertilized Kokanee eggs need cold, clean water to survive and develop to hatching. The flight costs are offset by increased egg survival and reduced spawning days at the weir. After around 45 days, developing eggs are then transported to Mackay State Fish Hatchery. Here, the warmer water helps Kokanee grow quickly (three to six inches) for stocking the following spring.

Fish and Game biologists use a combination of methods to track Kokanee populations. This includes trawling, gill-netting, sonar, water quality, and creel surveys. Biologists can increase populations by stocking Kokanee or allowing more adult fish to ascend spawning streams. On the other hand, biologists reduce kokanee populations by limiting spawning numbers, increasing angler bag limits, and stocking predatory fish such as Fall Chinook.

Hunting seasons will go on, but some access is limited

We've got a few updates for hunters released today.

First, hunting seasons will go on, however, there is some limited access that you need to be aware of.

In addition, to keep conditions safe, we're asking our responsible sportsmen to heed our enhanced Stage II restrictions in the Clearwater region. These restrictions are higher than usual and we expect they will help keep lands safe from fire. 


Be safe out there and hope for rain!

Idaho fire closure map at a glance (8/25/2015)

state of idaho fire closures as of 2015-08-25

Here's a more detailed map from Aug. 24 of the Clearwater fires.

Here's a link to the Panhandle National Forest and maps and its fire closures. 

Fire closure areas updated

Fire closures can be difficult to understand in relationship to hunting areas.

As of 8/21/2015 5:00pm MDT, we have updated our effort to show the area closures to help plan your scouting and hunting this fall around fire closures. There are 7-total area closures in Idaho as of this posting.

  1. Blue Fire (USFS Order # 15-D5-NP-02) Updated: 7/7/2015
  2. Cougar Fire (USFS Order # 0402-04-66) Updated: 8/14/2015
  3. Whitetail Peak Fire (USFS Order #01-04-01-15-003) Updated: 8/14/2015
  4. Rapid Fire (USFS Order #0412-472) Updated: 8/15/2015
  5. Teepee Springs Fire A (BLM Order # ID-420-02) Updated: 8/15/2015
  6. Campbells Fire (USFS Order #0412-474) Updated: 8/18/2015
  7. Teepee Springs Fire B (USFS Order #0412-471) Updated: 8/18/2015
  8. Bobcat Fire (USFS Order # 04-13-15-572) Updated: 8/20/2015

We do not maintain up-to-date trail maps, road closures, nor travel plans.

For the most current information, continue to use the INCIWEB and Idaho Fire Info blog. However, for planning purposes, consider using our Interactive Fire Map and Idaho Hunt Planner to look ahead to fall hunt planning.


The Incredible Salmon Journey Ends - and Begins

August is the time for death and life for Salmon in Idaho. Watching this real-life drama is difficult in the wild but you can see it at our fish hatcheries at Riggins (Rapid River), McCall, Stanley (Sawtooth), Orofino (Clearwater) and Pahsimeroi (Challis). At these locations you can watch biologists monitor and artificially spawn adult Salmon and place the eggs in incubators to once again produce the next generation of Idaho fish.

Kokanee are freshwater Salmon that are blocked from making the ocean journey. They live their entire lives in Idaho in our lakes and reservoirs. The early run Kokanee spawn in August and early September and can be seen in reservoir tributaries due to their bright red color. Like ocean-going salmon, they also die after spawning and their bodies release nutrients that feed fish and other wildlife in Idaho's remote rivers and streams. We do have late spawning Kokanee that spawn in November and December. Most of these are found in North Idaho waters.

If you want to learn more, visit our Boise Nature Center during Salmon and Steelhead Days Sept. 9-11, 2015.

Update: August 11, 12:30 p.m. - All early unclaimed controlled hunt tags have been sold.

The sale of 142 controlled hunt tags for hunts that begin in mid August were sold on a first-come, first-served basis at 10 a.m. Mountain Time, August 11 at Fish and Game offices, license vendors and online at

In case you missed the August 6 news release, a vendor system glitch made the sale of our first-come, first-served tags impossible on Thursday morning, August 6.

Updated August 18, 2015 10:00 am

All 142 tags scheduled to be sold were available when the sales resumed.

These tags are for unclaimed, early-season controlled hunts. They are different from the tags available for the second controlled hunt drawing.

The application period for the second controlled hunt drawing ended August 15th.

Updated August 18, 2015 10:00 am


Can I still buy a regular license?

Yes. The glitch only happened for these special case tags. You can still buy a license.

When did sales resume?

Tuesday, August 11th at 10:00 am MT.

Were tags sold?

All of the 142 tags were available for purchase once the system glitch was resolved.

Updated August 18, 2015 10:00 am

Fire updates and resources for current conditions and access closure information

Fires continue to burn throughout Idaho, and with hunting seasons starting, here's an overview and links to get more information.

Maps of Idaho Fires

Here's an overview map of fires throughout Idaho. 

You can add your hunting unit or controlled area to the map using the tool bar on the left side.
Note: Due to high web traffic, this page may be slow to load.

Travel Restrictions, Panhandle and Clearwater National Forests

There are currently access resrictions on the Forest Service lands in Northern Idaho and Clearwater due to fires. Here are maps for the Clearwater and maps for the Panhandle that show road and area closures. 

Large Fire Details

Detailed information about each fire burning in Idaho, including maps, can be found here. Note: You will need to know the name of the specific fire to get information.

Altered Hunts?

In the past, Fish and Game has rarely altered hunts because fires because the entire unit is seldom closed because of fire activity and the hunting season usually lasts well into fall. In limited cases, Fish and Game will refund controlled hunt tags or issue rainchecks for next year. Hunters can also exchange tags in some cases, but before a hunt starts. With extreme conditions this year, some hunts could be affected. Here is a recent press release about fires and hunting seasons.

Timely Fire Information

Areas without fires are still hot and dry with a high danger for wildfires, so there may be restrictions on campfires. Go here for current fire restrictions and more updates on current Idaho wildfires.

Fish and Game is currently monitoring fires throughout the state and will do its best to keep hunters updated. However, with various federal, state and private landowners dealing with fires, getting comprehensive information can be challenging, but we will distribute important information as we receive it.

Sockeye arrives at Stanley despite warm water, and Idaho Department of Fish and Game has safeguards to ensure their survival

The first sockeye salmon reached the Sawtooth Basin near Stanley on Monday, July 27 despite hot weather and warm water that prompted Idaho Fish and Game biologists to capture fish downstream to ensure survival of one of Idaho’s most endangered species.

IDFG employee holding sockeye

Tens of thousands of sockeye have died in the Columbia River. Most were likely headed to Central Washington, but during July, Fish and Game personnel trapped and trucked 37 sockeye from the Snake River at Lower Granite Dam to the Eagle Hatchery near Boise. High river temperatures were dangerous to the migrating fish, and the captured sockeye will be held in Eagle until they are ready to spawn in the fall. Many other sockeye remaining in the rivers face an uncertain future.

“It’s a tough year for all anadromous fish, including sockeye,” Fish and Game’s Senior Sockeye Research Biologist Mike Peterson said.

Biologists are concerned high water temperatures in rivers will stall, and kill, some sockeye before they arrive to their spawning grounds in the Sawtooth Basin.

Through July 27, 368 sockeye were counted at Lower Granite Dam about 30 miles from Lewiston. Biologists fear only a fraction of those will make it to the Sawtooth Basin, where some are trapped and taken to hatcheries while others are allowed to spawn in their namesake­ - Redfish Lake.

Trapping and transporting sockeye is one of many safeguards Fish and Game implemented to restore the most southern sockeye population in the world and a unique fish that swims 900 miles from the Pacific Ocean and 6,500-feet elevation to Central Idaho’s mountains.

Another safeguard is Fish and Game’s captive breeding program, which raises sockeye from egg to adult in a hatchery, foregoing the risky trip to the ocean. The program ensures that regardless of how many adults return this summer, the agency will still be able to ramp up its release of juveniles in the spring.

Despite a challenging summer, Idaho’s sockeye population has dramatically improved over the last decade, and Fish and Game’s sockeye program is designed to adapt to changing conditions.

An abundant sockeye return in 2010 allowed Fish and Game to try a pilot project where 19 sockeye were trapped and trucked from Lower Granite Dam to the Eagle Hatchery to see if the fish could survive the rigors of transport, and they did.

Fish and Game tried trapping again during a heat wave in 2013, but problems associated with getting cool water into Lower Granite’s fish trap lead to no sockeye trapped. This summer, cooler water was pumped from deeper in Lower Granite Reservoir so Fish and Game personnel could trap and transport them.

Biologists are currently in a wait-and-see mode for the fish remaining in the rivers.

“I don’t know what to expect because this is a year we’ve never seen before,” Peterson said. “We’re going to learn the thermal tolerances of these fish.”

After sockeye cross Lower Granite Dam, they still have 400 miles to travel in the Snake and Salmon rivers to reach the Sawtooth Basin, and biologist have limited ability to monitor their progress, or know what happened to those that didn’t make it.

Biologists know warm water slows their progress, and “every day they’re in warm water takes its toll,” Peterson said.

If there’s a silver lining, it will be gaining more knowledge about sockeye.

“Poor conditions mean we’re learning about these fish, and in the past, we didn’t have enough fish to learn from,” he said. “Experience drives what we do in the future.”

In the last decade, between 30 and 78 percent of sockeye that crossed Lower Granite Dam completed the trip to the Sawtooth Basin.

“I’m hoping we get that 30 percent conversion, but realistically it could be less,” Peterson said.

Even at a 30-percent return rate, it would be the smallest return since 2007.

After sockeye cross Lower Granite Dam, it typically takes 30 to 35 days for the fish to reach the Sawtooth Basin, and it’s “almost like clockwork,” Peterson said.

Sockeye started trickling across the dam in late May and June, but most crossed in July and are due to arrive at the Sawtooth Basin in August.

Even if it’s the smallest sockeye return since 2007, the current situation has to be taken in context of the bigger picture. When Idaho sockeye were listed in 1991 under the federal Endangered Species Act, only four adult sockeye returned to the Sawtooth Basin. The combined annual returns from 1991-99 was 23 fish, including two years when no sockeye returned to Idaho.