Low fish numbers prompt early end to steelhead season

A man fishes for steelhead in a swollen Umatilla River on Jan. 1, 2016, west of Rieth. The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife on Wednesday, Dec. 22, announced it is extending the closure of steelhead fishing on the Columbia River above The Dalles Dam in to Deschutes, John Day, Umatilla, Walla Walla rivers, all mid-Columbia tributaries.

SALEM — State regulators have closed steelhead fishing into 2022 for the mainstem Columbia River from The Dalles Dam upstream to the border of Oregon and Washington.

The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife announced the closure in a press release Wednesday, Dec. 22. The ban on steelhead extends into the mid-Columbia tributaries of the Deschutes, John Day, Umatilla and Walla Walla rivers.

The decision is to protect summer steelhead. Even though it soon will be 2022, steelhead from summer’s record low upriver run remain in the mainstem Columbia River and tributaries above The Dalles Dam, according to ODFW. The passage of approximately 67,750 fish at Bonneville Dam this year was 70% of the forecast and the lowest return on record.

Oregon and Washington fishery managers since 2017 have implemented a number of fishery restrictions throughout the Columbia River and various tributaries due to the declining steelhead returns. Protective regulations have included broad area and time closures, one-steelhead bag limits when open, thermal angling sanctuaries and hoot-owl restrictions (closing fishing at 2 p.m. before temperatures are warmest).

In addition to protecting wild summer steelhead, fishing closures have helped ensure hatcheries throughout the system were able to collect sufficient broodstock to spawn the next generation of hatchery steelhead.

While recent summer steelhead returns have been poor, the press release stated there are hopeful signs that conditions for salmon and steelhead may improve in the Columbia Basin in coming years. The Pacific Northwest is in a La Nina cycle, which delivers cooler ocean temperatures and more rain and snow that may help alleviate the drought and improve habitat conditions for salmon and steelhead.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration estimates ocean conditions off Oregon in 2021 were the second-best since sampling of ecosystem indicators started in 1998. These improved conditions should result in better ocean survival and subsequent adult returns.

Although many steelhead fisheries have been constrained in recent years, opportunity remains available. Per permanent regulations, fishing for hatchery winter steelhead is open in the Columbia River downstream of The Dalles Dam and in most adjacent tributaries.

Anglers can fish for summer steelhead in segments of the Imnaha, Umatilla and Grande Ronde rivers where return data indicates broodstock needs will be met and impacts to wild fish will be low. The bag limit for hatchery steelhead will increase to two fish beginning Jan. 1 in the Snake River from Lewiston to Hells Canyon Dam.

Because poor summer steelhead returns may persist in the near-term, according to the press release, fish biologists across the region will be coordinating on future protective measures while considering equitable sharing of the conservation burden.

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