Fishing

Idaho’s steelhead season is largely back on. State strikes a deal to help outfitters

‘Super’ fish? Salmon may surprise you. But they’re in peril, and need our help.

Decades of dam-building, development and human settlement have transformed the Pacific Northwest and complicated the life cycles of Idaho's salmon and steelhead.
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Decades of dam-building, development and human settlement have transformed the Pacific Northwest and complicated the life cycles of Idaho's salmon and steelhead.

Anglers and others who had planned to protest the scheduled closure of steelhead fishing in Idaho will now party instead.

Members of the newly formed Idaho River Community Alliance, environmental groups and the Idaho Department of Fish and Game forged an agreement Friday to stave off the closure and keep most of the state’s rivers open to steelhead fishing. The agreement was approved Friday night by the Idaho Fish and Game Commission in a unanimous vote.

Under the terms of the agreement, the groups will drop threatened litigation and the state will leave most areas open to steelhead fishing, but close the South Fork of the Clearwater River upstream of the Mount Idaho Bridge on State Highway 14 and the Salmon River from Warren Creek to the Copper Mine Boat Ramp upstream of Riggins. Both stretches are places where wild fish are known to congregate in high densities.

Although Idaho Fish and Game officials were unwilling to implement changes to legal fishing gear and fishing practices requested by the conservation groups, outfitters and guides associated with the Idaho River Community Alliance agreed to voluntarily adopt some of them.

According to the terms of the agreement, the outfitters and guides agreed to use only single, barbless hooks on plugs and lures; require their clients to keep the first hatchery fish they catch; and to release wild fish without removing them from the water.

The Idaho River Community Alliance also will hold workshops to educate outfitters, boat captains and deckhands about the new voluntary regulations.

Private anglers are not bound by the voluntary measures, but are bound by the closures on the Salmon and South Fork of the Clearwater.

Without the agreement, the season was to enter a state of suspension starting today. The Idaho Fish and Game Commission voted last month to halt steelhead fishing after the environmental groups that include the Conservation Angler, Wild Fish Conservancy, Wild Salmon Rivers, Friends of the Clearwater and Snake River Waterkeeper threatened to sue the state over its expired steelhead fishing permit. Idaho Rivers United also signed on to the threat of legal action but pulled out last week. The groups are concerned about the dismally low return of wild steelhead this fall and believe fishing needed to curtailed or regulations changed to help ensure as many of the fish make it to spawning grounds as possible.

The state’s federal permit through National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries that allows a small number of wild steelhead — protected as threatened under the Endangered Species Act — to be harmed during fishing expired in 2010. The state submitted a new permit the same year, but officials at NOAA Fisheries only recently began to review it.

The closure would have idled anglers and inflicted financial hardships on outfitters and guides and other businesses that depend on the spending of steelheaders. The economic hit was expected to be particularly difficult at Riggins, where steelhead fishing is one of the only things that brings visitors to the small town along the Salmon River in late winter and early spring.

Anglers, outfitters, guides and affected business owners formed the Idaho River Community Alliance on Nov. 29 to fight the closure and insert themselves in any negotiations, with the aim of keeping the season open. The group was created at Riggins, and a Clearwater Chapter made up of people from the Lewiston-Clarkston Valley and communities along the Clearwater River formed Monday.

Members of both chapters planned to hold a protest Saturday at Riggins City Park. Another protest and a trailered boat parade was scheduled at Lewiston for Sunday. Roy Akins, chairman of the group at Riggins, and Toby Wyatt, chairman of the Clearwater Chapter, said both events will still be held, but instead of protests they will turn into celebrations.

“This is really a win for everybody,” said Akins, owner of Rapid River Outfitters. “Now we can get back to work and focus attention on fish recovery.”

The environmental groups had taken heat in recent weeks over the closure. The move alienated both anglers and rural community members from the efforts of conservationists to recover wild steelhead. Akins said both sides should now look for common ground.

“It is so much more productive if everybody with the goal of fish recovery works together,” said Akins. “We have a long way to go, but now we have the conduits open for discussion with groups we previously didn’t.”

Wyatt, owner of the Clarkston-based Reel Time Fishing, praised his colleagues in the Riggins chapter for bringing the compromise forward but warned that more challenges to both fishing and hatchery releases are likely to come from the conservation groups.

“We are pleased a temporary solution has been reached,” he said. “We recognize this is the first of many battles to come. The fact remains these groups have attacked Idaho’s traditional way of life. We have banded together and will continue to fight for the rights of Idaho sportsman. The Idaho steelhead plan is not yet approved. We urge the public to comment for a speedy approval of the plan.”

Also Friday, members of the Idaho congressional delegation sent a letter to Barry Thom, West Coast Regional Administrator of NOAA Fisheries, asking him to move quickly to approve the state’s pending permit by the end of January. The agreement forged Friday is set to sunset March 15, or when the federal government approves the state’s permit.

David Moskowitz, executive director of the Conservation Angler, said the controversy was unpleasant at times and made many people angry but he wants them to know his group works hard up and down the Columbia River to make sure Idaho’s wild steelhead can make it back to Idaho rivers and is interested in working with Idaho anglers in that effort.

“I think there are some people we will be able to talk with who share our concern about wild fish, and I think we will be able to have conversations. I think it sets the stage for more productive collaboration on some of these bigger issues,” he said. “We are working hard for those wild fish. I hope that earns us a little bit of credibility.”

Idaho Fish and Game Director Virgil Moore said the entire episode was regrettable for the stress it caused anglers and rural communities that depend on income from steelhead fishing.

“This resolution achieves the commission’s objective to limit impacts to steelhead fishing as much as possible while we remain focused on finally receiving federal approval of our steelhead fishery plan for the long term,” he said.

The Riggins organization will hold a celebration starting at 11 a.m. Mountain Standard Time at Riggins City Park, along the town’s Main Street .

On Sunday members of the Clearwater chapter will hold a parade of trailered boats from the Port of Lewiston parking lot to the Southway Boat Ramp. Organizers are asking people who participate in the parade to gather at the port at 10:30 a.m. The official protest-turned-party at the boat ramp will begin at noon.

Members of the Clearwater Chapter of the Idaho River Community Alliance are holding a meeting at 6 p.m. Tuesday regarding the steelhead fishery and issues that nearly led to the season closure in Room 115 of Sacajawea Hall on the Lewis-Clark State College Campus at Lewiston.

Barker may be contacted at ebarker@lmtribune.com or at (208) 848-2273. Follow him on Twitter @ezebarker.
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