Early season optimism about the Columbia River summer steelhead runs have proven to be a little premature, and the states of Washington and Oregon have had to take unprecedented actions this summer to protect diminished returns of wild steelhead.
Washington has closed both Drano Lake and the mouth of the Wind River to steelhead retention, and has shut down night fishing at both fisheries and in the Columbia River. Oregon has shut down the Columbia River to all fishing at the mouth of the Deschutes River.
The numbers of returning summer steelhead have been low enough that fisheries managers do not believe the run will come in as strong as expected. The 190,000 projected 2018 return may actually come in closer to 110,000.
“We know the run is not going to hit the preseason forecast,” said Ryan Lothrop, the Columbia River Fishery Manager, “and we had to take some precautionary measures.”
As of this week the dam counts show 52,724 total steelhead have crossed Bonneville Dam, and 21,986 of those steelhead were unclipped wild fish. About half of the run should have passed the dam by now.
Lothrop explained that the run could be late, something that happens at times when river temps are too high.
“Sometimes in the warm-water years the runs will come in later,” said Lothrop.
However, it is highly improbable that the run would reach its projection even if that were the case.
Wild segments of the steelhead run enjoy protections under the Endangered Species Act (ESA).
The new fishing rules will remain in effect until further notice.
The Columbia River: The night closure will be in effect from Buoy 10 near the river’s mouth upriver to the Highway 395 Bridge in Pasco.
Drano Lake and the Wind River: The night closure and the steelhead-fishing closure will both be in effect in Drano Lake and from the mouth of the Wind River to 400 feet below the Shipherd Falls fish ladder.
Anglers fishing for other species such as northern pikeminnow and walleye can continue to fish at night in Washington waters.
These area will remain closed to all fishing until river temperatures have stabilized below 68 degrees. This is unlikely to occur prior to late September.
The closed areas are:
• All waters south of a straight line projecting from the flashing red USCG light NO. 2 upstream to the lower South Channel Range B marker located approximately 3/4-mile upstream of the mouth of the Deschutes;
• The lower Deschutes River from the mouth upstream to markers placed on the downstream end of Moody Rapids.
These are known cold water refuges for summer steelhead. When the Columbia River gets too warm for the fish to survive they pull into these refuges until colder weather arrives.
Even in these refuge areas, fighting a steelhead to exhaustion in the hot season can stress and kill fish that are released.
These fisheries are very popular with bank and small craft anglers, as well as fishermen with larger boats, and many of them are not happy.
When Washington posted the closures on Aug. 16, Anthony Schaffer of Portland was 72 hours away from flying to Sacramento, Calif., to drive his father and a boat up to the Wind River for a week-long fishing excursion.
“We booked an Airbnb with a strict refund policy on June 2, right after they posted the steelhead regulations,” Schaffer said. “We planned on fishing Sunday the 19th through the 26th” of August.
Schaffer fishes the Wind exclusively for summer steelhead, preferring its quiet waters to the crowds drawn to Drano Lake.
He was not happy about the prospect of fishing elsewhere.
“I have put so much time into learning the Wind River, and I’ve got it dialed in,” he said. “Only 48 hours notice? Give us some time to recover.”
“I feel really bad for all the guys that fish there, especially the bank fishermen,” he added.
Schaffer’s calls to the Washington Department of Fish Wildlife brought no satisfaction, and since Schaffer could not find another reasonably priced lodging during the fall salmon seasons, he just had to cancel the trip. That left him out quite a bit of money, but that is not what really rankles him.
“I am more disappointed about the quality time I was set to have with my father that is now lost,” he said.
However, not everyone is unhappy. David Moskowitz, the executive director of The Conservation Angler, said his group is supportive of the state’s efforts to protect wild steelhead.
“We are 100 percent supportive of Oregon’s closure of the Deschutes,” Moskowitz said.
He found the Washington actions to be good, but wishes they were stronger.
“I’m happy with it,” he said, “but I wish they would have gone bigger and more.”
The rules for Drano and the Wind end steelhead retention, but anglers can still fish them catch-and-release.
“When the numbers of steelhead are low the casual anglers won’t fish, but the guys that are serious are going to go even if they have to let the fish go,” he said.
Moskowitz prefers managers err on the side of the fish over the fishermen.
“We are trying to think about the future,” he added.
Schaffer considers himself a serious angler, but he said he will not put extra stress on the steelhead.
“I don’t find it ethically appropriate to continue fishing in the circumstance of a closure,” he said.
It is possible the run will be late, and some restrictions could then be relaxed, but in the meantime anglers like Schaffer are left chafing.