Coho in Idaho’s Clearwater River prove elusive

Idaho anglers might be excited by their first opportunity to fish for coho salmon, but few have been successful thus far.

The first-ever sport fishing season will last less than two weeks, and anglers thus far have caught and harvested just 44 coho, according to creel surveys conducted by the Idaho Department of Fish and Game.

Another seven coho were caught and released by anglers. On average, anglers have spent a combined 264 hours of fishing for each coho landed, and 306 hours for each one caught and kept.

John Toth of Lewiston was one of the first to catch a silver. The employee of Camp, Cabin and Home, a Lewiston Tackle shop, caught a male coho on opening day. The fish made a strong run and then jumped and “cleared 4 or 5 feet.”

“Steelhead will jump and some salmon, spring and fall, will jump but this thing came straight out of the water.”

Ethan Crawford of Moscow caught a 9-pound coho Saturday that was big enough to be judged a new state record. Other anglers may have already released even bigger coho. Joe DuPont, regional fisheries manager for the Idaho Department of Fish and Game at Lewiston, said there should be plenty of silvers in the 10-pound range.

JR Grotjohn of Lewiston caught a coho near the Clearwater Paper mill at Lewiston. His fishing partner, Vernon Grotjohn, estimated the fish was in excess of 10 pounds.

“It fought twice as much as a steelhead,” Vernon Grotjohn said. “It was just phenomenal.”

Steve Stajkowski of Orofino pulled in a female coho, full of eggs and estimated at 12 pounds, which he caught on his boat.

“We didn’t even think about a new record,” he said.

Coho were declared functionally extinct from the Snake River basin in the 1980s. But the run had tanked decades earlier. In 1995, the Nez Perce Tribe began an effort to re-establish the run using eggs and juveniles from surplus stock at hatcheries in the lower Columbia River basin.

The tribe’s fisheries division slowly increased the returns of the fish. Over the past handful of years, enough adult coho returned from the ocean that the tribe was able to rely on them to spawn the next generation and did not need to supplement juvenile releases with the offspring of coho that returned to the lower Columbia. Tribal fisheries officials expected returns would improve once the transition was made to a localized brood stock. But they were not expecting the huge leap the run made this fall.

During the previous five years, an average of 3,145 coho returned at least as far as Lower Granite Dam. This year more than 17,100 coho have been counted at the dam.

“The returning coho are being harvested and spawning, and part of our cultural connection to these fish has been re-established,” said. Silas Whitman, chairman of the Nez Perce Tribal executive committee and a former director of the tribe’s fisheries division.