Guest Opinions

Idaho anglers should handle wild steelhead with care

Don Chapman
Don Chapman

Idaho anglers will soon begin to seek steelhead. These fish provide outstanding recreational opportunities that are challenging and exciting for the angler. Regulations of the Idaho Department of Fish and Game permit harvest of the hatchery-produced fish. Anglers must release wild fish, identifiable by presence of an undamaged adipose fin.

Among the steelhead that pass Lower Granite Dam into the tributaries of the Snake River, 20 to 25 percent possess an intact adipose fin. Those fish cannot be retained if caught, and anglers must release them from required barbless hooks unharmed. Among these wild fish are over two dozen genetically identifiable races. They are listed as threatened under provisions of the Endangered Species Act.

After working for several decades on the ecology and populations of these fish, I consider them wonders of evolution. Some migrate thousands of miles and vertical feet to and from habitats in freshwater and the ocean. They constitute, in this era of climate warming, genetic units that can help maintain steelhead in Oregon and Idaho high country.

I hope anglers will all respect wild steelhead and do their very best to handle them carefully. The hooked fish fight for their lives until they become exhausted. This struggle in itself causes stress. Steelhead fishing throughout fall and winter exposes an unknown fraction of wild steelhead to multiple captures and stresses. The Idaho Department of Fish and Game does not, unfortunately, prohibit anglers from holding wild steelhead out of water for hook removal and photos, although Washington does.

Anglers should keep the fish in water while the hook is removed and photos taken. A rubberized net is preferable to a knotted one. A strong hemostat helps with prompt hook removal.

Exposing fish to air after capture can reduce survival. Air exposure causes physical damage to the gills and physiological stress that increases with air exposure duration and temperature of water and air. We should expect very low streamflow and very high water temperatures in many steelhead fishing areas this fall. Flow in the Salmon River to date dropped to 40 percent of normal by the beginning of summer, which allows air temperature to more easily affect water temperature.

Water temperatures at Columbia and Snake river dams have remained several degrees above historical levels already, a harbinger of more stress on adult steelhead as they migrate through eight hydropower dams and reservoirs. We can anticipate development of temperature blockages that prevent fish from moving upstream.

A plea to anglers: Please be careful out there with wild steelhead. Keep them breathing in water. Remove hooks and take your photos of them there.

Don Chapman, of McCall, studied and taught fish management and ecology for 50 years, with most of that effort devoted to salmon and steelhead of the Columbia River basin. He worked for state and federal agencies and public utilities, and was the founder of a consulting firm.