Low projected returns mean anglers can expect to keep fewer summer steelhead on the Grande Ronde and Imnaha rivers when the season opens Friday.
The Oregon Department of Fish & Wildlife announced Tuesday it has lowered the bag limit to one fish per day on both tributaries. The mainstem Snake River, meanwhile, has been limited to catch and release only, mirroring regulations implemented earlier this month in Idaho.
Summer steelhead returns have been historically low so far in 2017. As of Monday, only 70,000 hatchery and 25,000 wild steelhead have passed Bonneville Dam, which is just 30 percent of the most recent 10-year average.
Despite the disappointing forecast, Jeff Yanke, ODFW district fish biologist in Enterprise, is encouraging anglers not to panic.
“Coupled with the right river conditions, even in a low run year, we can still have a worthwhile steelhead fishery,” Yanke said. “Folks will just need to have a little more patience, and that is one quality steelhead anglers always bring to the river.”
Oregon officials expect the reduced bag limits will be temporary, but mark a conservative start to the season.
“It’s easy to get burned on a low return year like this if you overestimate,” Yanke said. “We want to manage (the fishery) conservatively right off the bat.”
So far, only 5 percent of the Grande Ronde and Imnaha steelhead have moved upstream of the Columbia River. Yanke said he should have a better idea of actual returns come October.
Local guides and outfitters are already feeling the effects of this year’s steelhead outlook. Grant Richie, who owns the Minam Store along Highway 82 in Wallowa County, said he is definitely seeing a lower rate of bookings for guided raft trips this fall.
Richie said he usually leads one, five-day guided trip down the Wallowa and Grande Ronde rivers between Minam and Troy during the fall season, with about six to eight people per trip. This year, he said he is booking just two to four people per trip.
One visitor who booked a year in advance called recently with concerns the entire river would be shut down, Richie said.
“With all the bad reports this spring, we’re definitely seeing a lower rate of bookings for this fall,” he said.
Though Richie acknowledged the run is down, he said there are still steelhead to be caught.
“There will be fish in the river,” he said.
Yanke also reiterated that, though the bag limit for steelhead has been lowered, current estimates suggest enough fish will return to sustain their hatchery programs and provide enough fish for harvest.
A one-fish limit simply prevents a situation where anglers would be forced to put back an injured fish, he added.
Contact George Plaven at firstname.lastname@example.org or 541-966-0825.