ODFW webinar on steelhead in the Columbia Basin

Last night the Oregon Department of Fish & Wildlife held a webinar on the outlook for wild steelhead in the Columbia River and Oregon tributaries like the Deschutes. The bottom line is that wild returns in many rivers were the lowest on record last year and are forecast to be even lower this year. For example, only 480 wild steelhead are projected to pass above Sherars Falls on the Deschutes River this year! (Talk about depressing.) While management decisions have not been finalized, the current recommendation is to close all steelhead fishing on both the Deschutes and John Day rivers until returns exceed certain thresholds. Keep reading for more information and a little commentary.

ODFW is to be commended for their new approach to public outreach. Their presentation last night and the recent presentation on summer steelhead in the North Umpqua are welcome developments in communicating their plans and reasoning with the public. They need to make the presentations more uniform and less reliant on obscure jargon, but they got the message across. (I think I figured out what a “dip-in” fishery was by the end of the presentation, but can’t be sure.)

I recommend you take a quick look at this prior post, then go to ODFW’s “Steelhead management in Columbia & Snake river basins” page where you can watch a replay of the presentation as well as download the slides. The presentation was 2 hours long, but I found it more than worthwhile, and my wife was watching “Bridgerton” anyway. I have questions about some of the data and will post more if I can get them answered. (For example, how can angler impact be so very low on one slide when on another harvest seems to take out most of the returning adults in some years?)

Like most who responded to the angler survey, I support taking drastic steps in response to wild steelhead returns below the “critical abundance threshold”. Closing the Deschutes and John Day rivers until those thresholds have been met makes perfect sense to me. The problem will be poaching. Last year the Deschutes was closed to steelhead but there was little to no enforcement and poaching was rampant. Even above Trout Creek many anglers were clearly using steelhead gear. I don’t recall ever seeing an OSP officer float the river looking for violators. Without that sort of enforcement changing regulations will be of limited value in protecting wild steelhead.

Here are a few other tidbits that I found interesting. It is estimated that 100% of wild steelhead on the Deschutes are “encountered” (caught and then released)! It is also estimated that 5% of these are killed in the process or shortly after release. There was no discussion of impacts on spawning rates after an “encounter” although I have read elsewhere that fecundity does decline. All that combined with a dismal outlook for wild adult returns this year makes me an enthusiastic supporter of closing steelhead season until returns improve.