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Lewiston Tribune
Steelhead run closes wild year


December 10, 2009
By Eric Barker of the Tribune
Wild fish seem to be outbiting their hatchery cousins in catch ratios this year

This year's fabulous run of steelhead has topped the 312,000 mark.

That includes about 72,000 wild steelhead for about 23 percent of the run. But if you ask anglers what they are catching, it would seem the numbers are reversed. Many anglers tell of days on the river when hatchery fish are few and far between, but wild fish are hooked left and right.

"We have been (catching) probably 70 percent wild," said Toby Wyatt of Reel Time Fishing, based out of Clarkston.

Stu Waters, of the Waters Edge Tackle Shop in Clarkston, said he hears of similar wild-to-hatchery catch ratios when he gets fishing reports from anglers.

"They are coming in and saying 'I had a 12-fish day, I had a 19-fish day, I had a 16-fish day but only five were hatchery,' " he said.

Hatchery steelhead can be kept by anglers but wild steelhead, which are listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act, must be released. Most hatchery fish have their adipose fins clipped as juveniles. The missing fin makes them identifiable as hatchery fish to anglers.

Waters said many anglers believe hatcheries are failing to clip the adipose fins of a large percentage of their fish and that is why anglers seem to catch so many of them.

"Most of these guys are coming in, they are all convinced the hatcheries just aren't clipping them," he said.

Hatcheries do leave some of their juvenile steelhead unmarked, but the percentages are small. For example, Ray Jones of Dworshak National Fish Hatchery said about 10 percent of the more than 2 million steelhead raised at the hatchery are released as juveniles without having their adipose fins clipped. It's part of an agreement with the Nez Perce Tribe designed to increase the number of fish that escape the sport fishery so the fish might spawn in the wild and boost wild runs. Other hatcheries release similar proportions of unclipped to clipped fish.

Jones said he has heard stories from anglers who catch an unexpectedly high number of wild fish and he doesn't know how to explain it.

"If (the fish) survive in the same proportion that they are clipped in, I would surmise there are 10 times the number of clipped fish out there than unclipped," he said. "Probably only 10 percent are unclipped that we release from the hatchery here."

Wyatt said he has heard the theory that fins are not being clipped. But he said that doesn't square with his experience. Wild steelhead are known to be stronger fighters than their hatchery cousins. Experienced anglers can usually tell when they have a wild fish on, based on the way it fights, even before they see it.

"There has not been many instances when I reeled in a wild fish and thought it was a hatchery fish that was missed clip. You can almost always tell. It runs farther, jumps more and when you get it to the boat the colors are more vibrant."

He theorizes that wild fish survive their journey as juveniles from fresh water to the ocean better than hatchery fish. He reasons since wild fish rear in mountain streams they might do a better job of catching the high flows of spring runoff than hatchery fish that are released into main-stem rivers.

"The last few years there has been lots of water and they have been spilling water over the dams to increase the flow rate to get fish to ocean. I think those wild fish are getting a little better flush."

But that theory doesn't explain why the number of steelhead counted while crossing dams as adults includes more than a 4-to-1 ratio of hatchery fish.

Many anglers believe wild steelhead not only fight better once they are hooked, but they are more aggressive and territorial and that makes them more susceptible to being caught. Anglers try to entice steelhead to bite essentially by bugging them. The idea is to get a lure or fly in front of a fish to the point it becomes irritated and strikes. If wild fish are more territorial of their space, it stands to reason they might strike at angler offerings more often.

"I agree with that for sure," Wyatt said and noted he has seen the same wild fish caught multiple times over a series of days or weeks.

Larry Barrett of the Idaho Department of Fish and Game has another theory for the high wild catch rate experienced by some anglers. He said as the steelhead fishing season drags on, the ratio of wild fish in the river tends to rise. That is because anglers often keep the hatchery steelhead they catch. Day by day there are fewer and fewer hatchery fish in a particular stretch of river and more and more wild fish.

He calls it the jelly-bean effect. Imagine there is a bowl of red and black jelly beans. If people continually grab a handful and eat only the black jelly beans and return the red ones, pretty soon the bowl will be full of red jelly beans.

That can be especially true in a year like this one that hasn't seen much fall rain. When November and December rainstorms add more water to the rivers, it entices steelhead holding in the Lower Granite Reservoir to move upstream. That movement reshuffles the deck and adds more hatchery fish to upriver fishing holes. When rain storms are few and far between, hatchery numbers dwindle and wild catch rates climb.

Barrett also said many hatchery fish are on a mission to return to the places they were released. But wild fish that spawn in mountain streams tend to stay in the lower reaches of rivers longer and wait until closer to their spawning period in March and April to move far upriver.

"Hatchery fish tend to have a mission. They get boogying out like the big bulk of the huge run this year is headed to the upper Salmon or to Hells Canyon Dam. Tons of fish are at Hells Canyon Dam and the upper Salmon where these wild fish are spreading out."

He also said fishing conditions, particularly in the Clearwater River, have been poor this year. The water has been low and cold.

"What you have is what you've got until it warms up or flows come up and that goes back to the jelly-bean theory."

Lastly, he said, there are more wild fish in this year's runs. And some of the unclipped hatchery fish that are part of the supplementation programs are highly concentrated in certain river stretches.

For instance, he said about 8,000 unclipped hatchery fish are headed to the Little Salmon River drainage this year. That compares to an estimate of about 4,000 clipped hatchery fish. That means anglers fishing the Little Salmon River and the lower Salmon River near Riggins will catch a lot of unclipped fish. Another big push of unclipped hatchery fish are bound for the South Fork of the Clearwater River and anglers there can expect to hook a lot of nonkeepers.

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Barker may be contacted at [email protected] or at (208) 848-2273.
 
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