Outdoors

Building a better steelhead on the South Fork of the Clearwater

While some people fish for fun and even food, others fish for the future.

That’s what a group of volunteers have been doing recently on the South Fork Clearwater River from Stites to Mount Idaho.

Over 100 volunteer anglers were recruited by the Idaho Fish and Game, with assistance from the Nez Perce Tribe, to help catch and collect adult steelhead from the South Fork Clearwater River for hatchery spawning needs.

Using rod and reels, the volunteers placed hatchery steelhead they caught into perforated holding tubes in the water at popular fishing areas. Personnel from Fish and Game’s Clearwater hatchery then collected the steelhead and transported them to the Dworshak National Fish Hatchery where they were held until spawning.

The fishing project began in late February and the goal of collecting 225 spawning pairs was completed by March 7. The fish have been spawned, and if all goes as planned, this will allow the release of about 1.2 million juvenile steelhead - called smolts - into the South Fork the spring of 2016.

Typically weirs, a sort of water fence, are placed in the river to trap and collect adult steelhead to meet hatchery needs. Since this is not an option in the South Fork, Fish and Game turned to anglers in 2010.

“When we first started, we didn’t know if anglers would be willing to participate or if they could catch enough,” said Don Whitney, Fisheries Biologist with Idaho Fish and Game. “But each year, the program continues to grow and this year our volunteers collected enough spawning pairs to fulfill the entire 1.2 million smolt release goal.”

Prior to this collection effort, South Fork hatchery steelhead were entirely from steelhead collected downriver at Dworshak National Fish Hatchery. The effort in the South Fork has allowed the transition to a steelhead that over time, should adapt to the South Fork Clearwater River. Termed “locally adapted broodstock,” these fish should maintain the traits that have made the Clearwater steelhead such a popular fishery and allow the fish to adapt to the unique environment of the South Fork.

As smolts from previous collections return as adults, biologists will compare return success from fish produced from this new method with the adult returns produced through other hatchery strategies in the Clearwater.

“It’s a win-win,” said Whitney. “The collaborative efforts between Fish and Game, Nez Perce Tribe, Dworshak National Fish Hatchery, and ultimately the public really shed light on what we can achieve when we work together for a common goal.”

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