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Clearwater anglers

Steelhead anglers test the waters on the Clearwater River east of Lewiston in this file photo from Aug. 15.

LEWISTON — Jeff Jarrett already had more than 60 customers lined up for steelhead fishing trips on the Clearwater River this fall through his outfitting company, Jarrett’s Guide Service. Then officials announced there would be no Clearwater steelhead season.

“I canceled 57 boats,” Jarrett told the Statesman in a phone interview.

On Sept. 29, the Idaho Fish and Game Commission completely closed the steelhead season on the Clearwater River and the lower Snake River to protect the threatened fish, which had a particularly troubling run this year. The commission also lowered bag limits on the nearby Salmon River and upper Snake, allowing anglers to keep just one fish per day. The closure and bag limits will remain in effect through the 2020 spring season.

But despite the fact that two other major rivers — the Salmon and the Snake — remain open for steelhead season, guides on those rivers said they’ve been hit by the Clearwater closure, thanks to misconceptions that there’s no steelhead fishing allowed at all.

Jarrett, who does 99% of his guiding trips on the Clearwater, said he tried to switch some trips to the open rivers. The Orofino-based guide said he found it a hard sell for some of his clients.

“I tried to salvage what I could of the season, but it’s hard to get people to go down the Salmon River for something small compared to what you’d get on the Clearwater,” he said. “I’ve got them spoiled.”

Jarrett managed to transfer seven of his trips to the Salmon River earlier this fall, where he worked as a guide for Rapid River Outfitters. He’s turned to work in carpentry now that those trips are over, which he said is unusual.

“Usually I’m on the river all winter,” he said.

Rapid River Outfitters operates steelhead fishing trips on the Salmon River near Riggins, owner Roy Akins said in a phone interview. Despite the fact that the river Akins frequents remained open, he said he’s had to fight the misconception that all steelhead fishing in Idaho was banned this year.

“Virtually every one of our clients in October would say they’d heard from someone that all fishing up here was closed,” Akins said. “It helps fuel the idea that fishing’s just no good here.”

The Clearwater River closure has also been a big challenge for Toby Wyatt, who owns and operates Reel Time Fishing near Lewiston. Though Wyatt does 90% of his steelhead trips on the Clearwater, he switched some of his trips to the Snake River this year.

“The Clearwater is where I’ve built my business,” he said. “I’m down about 50% and I know that will get worse in December, January, February because that’s when we’d do more on the Clearwater.”

Steelhead fishing on the Salmon and Snake Rivers

That’s not to say the season on the Salmon and Snake rivers has been a total bust.

“When people see and hear all the bad news, they just don’t come,” Wyatt said. “But there’s still good fishing to be had.”

Steelhead

Snake River steelhead fishing has been limited to catchand release. The daily limit has been reduced on the Salmon and upper Snake rivers in Idaho this year.

Wyatt said his clients are reeling in between eight and 15 steelhead per day on the Snake River. About a quarter of those are hatchery fish, which can be kept. Wild fish, which can be distinguished by their intact adipose fin, must be released.

Joe DuPont, fisheries manager for the Fish and Game’s Clearwater Region, said the number of people fishing each day is down across the area.

“Interestingly though, when angler effort goes down, it often results in catch rates going up,” DuPont said in an email. “This is because there is less competition for the fish, and uneducated fish are easier to catch.”

Akins said his clients are catching multiple steelhead on each trip on the Salmon — though, of course, they can only keep one per day.

Last week, the Idaho Fish and Game Commission extended the Salmon and upper Snake bag limits for the 2020 steelhead season starting Jan. 1. In a news release, Fish and Game shared some good news: The agency is on pace to meet broodstock goals for several hatcheries in the region despite the incredibly low returns earlier this year.

In the news release, Fish and Game Fisheries Bureau Chief Jim Fredericks said the agency is “fairly confident now that we’ll be able to achieve our Clearwater broodstock needs,” and even have additional fish in the river system.

Because of that, there could be a steelhead season on the Clearwater River in early 2020.

“We’re confident we’ll be able to provide some catch and release opportunity at a minimum, and possibly some level of harvest,” Fredericks said in the release.

The future for Idaho steelhead

The river guides said this year’s steelhead season is unprecedented.

“I’ve never seen a complete closure on the Clearwater,” said Wyatt, who has been outfitting through his business for 30 years. “This is the worst year I can remember of steelheading in my lifetime.”

The effects are rippling beyond just outfitters. Jarrett said local motels have lost hundreds of reservations. Restaurants that are usually filled with visiting anglers are nearly empty.

Outdoor recreation is one of Idaho’s key industries, according to the Idaho Department of Commerce. Last year, the Outdoor Industry Association estimated that outdoor rec generates about $7.8 billion in consumer spending each year.

But small Idaho towns are suffering right now, the outfitters said.

“Right now, Orofino’s a ghost town,” Wyatt said.

It’s the second rough year in a row for steelhead fishing. Last year, the Fish and Game Commission briefly shuttered the season after environmental groups threatened to sue over an expired incidental take permit, which allows for activities that could inadvertently involve the harvest of endangered or threatened species.

As a result, the outfitters formed the Idaho River Community Alliance and pushed to be part of the conversation.

“As we got through last year, we knew we’d have to prepare for what came next,” said Akins, who serves as a Riggins city councilman and helped organize the Alliance. “Instead of a clerical issue, we had a biological issue.”

Akins said he’s happy the outfitters now have “a seat at the table” with legislators, environmental groups and other interests working to preserve the species. Many of the outfitters are now part of Gov. Brad Little’s work group on salmon recovery. Many of the same moves that could benefit salmon would also boost steelhead survival — if all the involved parties can agree on solutions, which has long proven difficult as groups debate which solutions would prove most effective.

“There’s not one thing you can point your finger at and say, ‘This is the problem,’” Wyatt said. “Everyone who fishes for these fish, everyone needs to curtail back and change their ways.”

And while it’s been a tough season, the river guides said they understand why the closure was necessary.

“I don’t have a problem giving these fish a break if they need a break from all the people,” Jarrett said.

Wyatt agreed.

“I respect these fish,” Wyatt said. “I love these fish, and I don’t want them to go extinct. I agree with the closure, and I understand it. I’m hoping and praying the runs get better.”

In the meantime, they’ll continue to make the best of the season.

“We’re just hoping to get the message out there that it’s going to be a good year,” Akins said. “Maybe not the best, but a good year.”

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