Spring Chinook Season: A Good Year for Salmon

Photo of a man kneeling in a river, holding a freshly caught spring chinook

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By HOLLY ENDERSBY

Spring chinook season starts in April — that time of year when anglers start watching salmon counts as fish come over Lower Granite Dam. And, according to IDFG, this spring could be the best year for salmon since 2016.

Now, mind you, a good year is still a lot worse than historic pre-dam levels, but it’s still a reason for rejoicing. 

Idaho is blessed with thousands of miles of perfect spawning habitat, if only the fish can make it to that Nirvana. IDFG and, most notably, the Nez Perce Tribe, have worked diligently to increase the potential for ever larger salmon runs. The one variable they can’t manipulate is ocean conditions. 

Improvement in Numbers

Joe Dupont, Clearwater Region Fisheries Manager at the IDFG office in Lewiston, is cautiously optimistic about this year’s run. 

“We are making these projections on models,” he warns, “so we may need to adjust them as fish begin to come over Lower Granite Dam. But right now, it looks like a good season.”

The IDFG website is a treasure-trove of information on salmon, and every well-prepared angler should visit the section on fisheries. You can click on specific areas to see what the projections look like. For example, if you click on the Clearwater Basin fisheries, you can see what happened last year and what is expected this year. 

“There are four hatcheries in the Clearwater Basin,” explains Dupont. “So right now, we expect about 8400 fish from those hatcheries to go past Lower Granite Dam. We started releasing a lot more smolts in 2018, but, due to poor ocean conditions, this is the first year we expect to see improvement in number of returning adult fish.” 

The Season

It looks like the Commission may recommend opening the season in the Clearwater Basin at seven days a week with a limit of one adult fish per day if the counts are as predicted. How long the season runs depends upon actual numbers of returning fish and harvest by anglers. 

In addition, IDFG has to ensure that brood stock numbers are reached for each of the hatcheries, so those returns are carefully monitored. Numbers in excess of brood stock needs are made available for harvest. 

The Rapid River hatchery feeds directly into the Little Salmon River and a short time later into the main stem of the Salmon River at Riggins. This year 14,000 Rapid River fish are expected over Lower Granite, the best return in years. 

If that prediction holds, the Commission may declare a harvest share of 3600 fish based on a season open seven days a week with two adults a day. If the predictions are different from reality, then season regulations will be adjusted to either raise or lower number of days or limits. 

In a good year, it’s not uncommon to see the banks of the Little Salmon River lined, elbow-to-elbow, with anglers. In addition, the Nez Perce Tribal members often fish the Rapid River and Little Salmon where it is joined by the Rapid River as a reflection of their treaty rights. 

Returns

Returns for three-year adult chinook from the Snake River in Hells Canyon are expected to be very low as no smolts were released in 2000. However, IDFG expects there may be a robust return of jacks, those salmon that only stay in the ocean one year. 

These are smaller fish versus the normal adult return size after three years growing in the ocean. But with jacks coming in, the Commission may open the season for them seven days a week with one fish a day harvest.  

As I write this, IDFG is still working off models, so it’s important for anglers to check the website on a regular basis to plan the spring chinook salmon season. But it does appear that more of us will be successful wetting a line and landing a salmon this spring than any year since 2016. ISI

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