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Western Fly Anglers Brace for Steelhead Restrictions this Fall

Faced with historically bad steelhead returns in 2021, state agencies initiate restrictions, closures.

Western Fly Anglers Brace for Steelhead Restrictions this Fall

Steelhead fishing on the Salmon River near Stanley, Idaho. Idaho Fish & Game has proposed a reduced bag limit from three hatchery steelhead per day to one per day on the Snake, Salmon, and Little Salmon rivers. (Shutterstock image)

With the start of meteorological fall on Sept. 1, fly fishers across the western U.S. are hoping to find some good news, if not better fishing conditions, as they head for familiar beats on rivers and streams fished for years.

The same kind of familiar waters described by renowned fly fishing author Roderick Haig-Brown in his book The Seasons of a Fisherman as he wrote of home rivers and their strong pull.

"All that matters is that it should be the stream he knows best, fishes most regularly and has adopted as his own,” wrote Haig-Brown in a passage quoted by Game and Fish author Dennis Dauble in his excellent story a few years ago entitled "5 Steps to Steelhead Fishing Success."

It might not go just right on many fall and winter days, but when it does, steelheading is glorious, so much so that it fuels many late-night angling dreams.

But news announced earlier this week has some anglers bracing for what is potentially the worst steelhead returns in history this fall. Steelhead fishing is always tough, even on its best day, and the latest news compounds the difficulties for steelheaders looking forward to autumn fishing.

Ross Purnell, editor of Game and Fish Magazine sister publication, Fly Fisherman indicated that West Coast fly fishers are in fact bracing themselves for that sobering prospect, one that could lead to the worst fall steelhead season ever recorded in modern U.S. history.

"As of Tuesday, Aug. 31, only 35,106 steelhead had been counted at Bonneville Dam on the Columbia River, and just 780 at Lower Granite Dam on the Snake River," wrote Purnell. "The five-year average on that date is 67,973 and 2,679, respectively."

That's not good news in a number of places, including Idaho.

An experienced fly fisherman wades in the water while fly fishing the Deschutes River in Oregon. The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife closed the Deschutes River to steelhead fishing for at least the month of September. (Shutterstock image)

"One could argue, at least for this date, this is the worst steelhead run past the Bonneville area ever," said Joe DuPont, regional fisheries manager for the Idaho Department of Fish & Game.

Purnell indicated that in response to the lowest runs in recorded history, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW) has responded by closing the John Day, Umatilla, and Walla Walla rivers to steelhead angling for the remainder of the year. They've also closed the Deschutes River for at least the month of September.

Sandwiched just to the north and west of Oregon and Idaho, Washington state officials are also reacting to the low numbers of steelhead this fall, with Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) closing the Snake River from its mouth to Clarkston to all steelhead fishing.

And Purnell indicated that there could be even more closures coming as both ODFW and WDFW are reportedly negotiating with Idaho Fish & Game (IDFG) to "…ensure that portions of the Snake River with shared jurisdictions have equivalent closures."

As of Aug. 31, Purnell noted that Idaho Fish & Game had made no closures as of yet, but the agency had proposed a reduced bag limit from three hatchery steelhead per day to one per day on the Snake, Salmon, and Little Salmon rivers. He also reminded that wild steelhead are listed under the Endangered Species Act and cannot be killed.

North of the border, the situation is also dire as Purnell pointed out that in British Columbia, the outlook is similarly bad for the Canadian province's famed Skeena River, an aquatic treasure that has been faced with its share of troubles and controversy in recent times.

Purnell notes that there are more troubles potentially ahead for the Skeena, despite the fact that in August, the Canadian government opened its borders for recreational travel from the U.S. for the first time since the COVID-19 pandemic began. But that news is also tempered with bad news from the Skeena Tyee Test Fishery that could result in closures to the fishery this fall.

The editor of Fly Fisherman pointed out that the test fishery "…has been used by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans for decades to predict returns of Pacific salmon on the Skeena, but steelheaders also use it as a predictor for the coming fall steelhead season."

As of Aug. 25, Purnell noted that the steelhead cumulative index was 19.95, the lowest ever recorded on that date. How bad is that figure? Purnell notes that "…the previous 5-year average was 93.6 on that date, so the run is barely 20 percent of normal."

In a year of bad news headlines, the latest about steelhead is sobering to say the least, causing many fly fishers across the west to wonder what's next in another year of "you won't believe this," news cycles.

That's especially troublesome for the nation's steelheaders, a dedicated group of fly anglers who wade into tough weather conditions, swing a fly in a prime run, and hope for the thump of a lifetime in a river that they know like the back of their hand.

The latest sobering report was more unwelcome news in a year already filled with such headlines detailing drought and heat, forest fires, fishery closures and even the cancelation of the 2021 International Fly Tackle Dealers show.

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