Though Columbia River Closed For Steelhead Fishing Up To John Day Dam, Tributaries Remain Open With Reduced Bag Limits

Due to lower forecasts of upriver summer steelhead, the Columbia River is closed to steelhead retention through September from the river’s mouth up to the John Day Dam.

However, tributaries of the river remain open for steelhead fishing and retention, and in the Snake River and tributaries, fishing either is continuing, as it is in Idaho, although with a reduced bag limit, or just opening, as in tributaries of the Snake in Oregon, also with a reduced bag limit.

In a recent blog, Idaho Fish and Game’s Clearwater Regional Fish Manager Joe DuPont said that the return this year is the worst since 2011, when Idaho began to keep PIT-tag records.

“Because of these poor returns, we are concerned that if we don’t reduce harvest that we may not meet brood needs for these steelhead programs,” DuPont said.

This week (Sept. 1) the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife opened Oregon waters to the summer steelhead retention, with a reduced bag limit of one hatchery fish per day. The season will run through Dec. 31. Open waters are:

•           The Grande Ronde River upstream to Meadow Creek

•           The Imnaha River downstream of Big Sheep Creek

•           The Wallowa River from the mouth upstream to Trout Creek;

•           Big Sheep Creek downstream of Little Sheep Creek

•           The Wenaha River downstream of Crooked Creek;

•           The Snake River from the state line to Hells Canyon Dam;

•           Catherine Creek upstream to Hwy 203 bridge above Catherine Cr. State Park

“Unfortunately, the returning numbers are similar to those last year,” said Winston Morton, ODFW Acting Assistant District Fish Biologist in Enterprise. “As with last year, we have decided to limit the daily catch to one hatchery fish per day in order to protect the returning wild steelhead as well as to ensure the hatchery has enough returning fish for broodstock.”

Summer steelhead are on their way up the Columbia and Snake Rivers. As of Sept. 1, some 7,340 steelhead had crossed Lower Granite Dam of which 4,827 of those are hatchery fish, ODFW said. That’s just 30 percent of the 10-year average.

“We will reevaluate the daily bag limit if returns increase,” added Morton.

DuPont said that typically by this time of year (late August), 5 percent of the summer steelhead run destined for the Clearwater River would have passed Bonneville Dam, so predictions are difficult.

“That being said, there is a fairly good model that we use to predict the 2-ocean hatchery returns to the Clearwater (steelhead that spent two years in the ocean),” he continued in his blog. “It basically uses how many 1-ocean steelhead returned last year to predict how many 2-ocean fish will return this year. The reasons we are focused on the 2-ocean fish are because these fish typically dominate the Clearwater return, and they are the ones we rely upon for brood stock. This model estimates that the return of 2-ocean steelhead this year will be somewhere between what we saw in 2013 and 2017. In both of these years, we restricted harvest of steelhead in the Clearwater to only those fish less than 28 inches to insure we met brood needs.”

That is why the Idaho Fish and Game Commission recently reduced the bag limit on Idaho waters to one hatchery fish per day under 28 inches.

Dupont added that wild steelhead returns over Bonneville are higher than hatchery returns, although all returns are still down. Wild returns at the dam, as of Aug. 21, are higher than had passed by the same date in 2017, 2018 and most of the 1990s, he said.

As of Sept. 4, the count of steelhead at Bonneville Dam was 58,549, with 31,094 of those fish unclipped (wild). Total passage is just 26 percent of the 10-year average of 221,942, and the wild passage is 38 percent of the 10-year average of 82,409. Passage last year on this date was 69,965 with 25,891 wild.

The count at Lower Granite Dam on Sept. 3 was 4,989 with 2,609 wild. That’s 23 percent of the 10-year average of 21,075 total steelhead with the wild portion 30 percent of the 10-year average of 8,576. Last year on this date, 6,663 steelhead had passed the dam, with 2,345 wild.

The Conservation Angler wants more tributary closures. Dave Moskowitz, the organization’s executive director, sent a letter to the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, suggesting that the recent Columbia River closure is “insufficient” to protect wild steelhead. TCA asked for further closures in rivers along the Columbia in Washington that provide a cold water refuge for steelhead, such as the Washougal, Wind, Drano Lake (Little White Salmon) and White Salmon rivers.

Idaho Fish and Game is conducting a steelhead tag reward study and ODFW wants Oregon anglers to be aware of fish that are tagged in the study.

“IDFG has tagged fish some fish and while most will return to their natal streams in Idaho, there is a chance Oregon anglers could catch some of these fish and we would encourage them to report the catch,” said Morton.

The tags will be located just below the dorsal fin of the fish. Anglers can report online at or by phone 1-866-258-0358. Reward tags should be mailed to: Fish Tag Returns, 1414 East Locust Lane, Nampa, ID 83686.

For the latest information on fishing regulations in the Northeast and Snake River zones, visit:

For background, see:

— CBB, August 29, 2019, “With Steelhead Forecasted Return Dropping 27 Percent, States Extend Ban On Retention In Lower Mainstem Columbia River,”

— CBB, August 14, 2019, “States Take Steps To Protect ESA-Listed Snake River Steelhead; Deschutes Fishing Closure (Cold Water Refuge), Rolling Closures Up The Columbia,”

— CBB, August 8, 2019, “Upriver Steelhead Forecasts Down, B-Run 24 Percent of Average; Idaho Considers Extending Fall Chinook Fishing Areas in Clearwater,”

More news from CBB: