Steelhead run breaks records

A bountiful run of steelhead has led to monster catches on the Salmon River near Riggins, Idaho, this fall, with seasoned anglers netting as many as 30 fish per day.

"This is one of the best hook-into-and-catch-rate years we've ever seen," says Amy Sinclair, owner of Exodus Wilderness Adventures, a local guide service. "We are seeing multiple days of double-digit hook-ins."

As of late November, more than 310,000 steelhead had dutifully wriggled their way over the fish ladder on the Snake River's Lower Granite Dam in southeastern Washington—the eighth dam they must overcome on their instinctual journey from the sea to their spawning grounds on Idaho's Salmon and Clearwater rivers. Biologists expect another 5,000 fish to follow, with the grand total topping the 2008 run by 140,000 fish.

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Better yet, the number of wild steelhead returning to spawn seems destined to set new records as well, with more than 44,000 wild fish counted, compared to 38,000 in 2001, the next best year in recent memory. Wild steelhead are protected by the Endangered Species Act and can be identified by their intact adipose fin, unlike the clipped fin of their hatchery counterparts.

A perfect blend of favorable conditions has helped the steelhead on their way: abundant winter snowfall and subsequent heavy runoffs, new water flow management techniques on the Snake and Columbia, and high survival rates at sea.

Once winter sets in, the steelhead lay low—biologists call this "staging"—before blasting upstream to their spawning beds in the spring, when the unprecedented numbers should lead to great fishing.

"There are 80,000 to 100,000 fish between North Fork and Stanley—three times more than we've ever had," says Idaho Fish and Game biologist Larry Barrett. "They're stacked up."

Anglers will no doubt be itchy to knock a few down.

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