Anglers help boost Clearwater salmon stocks

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LEWISTON — There is fishing to fill your freezer, fishing for fun and then there is fishing for the future.

That’s what a group of volunteers is doing on the North Fork of the Clearwater River below Dworshak Dam.

The Idaho Department of Fish and Game has enlisted hard-core anglers to help collect spring chinook for hatchery spawning. The anglers are using hook and line to catch spring chinook. But instead of keeping them for table fare or releasing them, the fish are revived and transferred to Dworshak National Fish Hatchery, which is well short of its spawning goals.

“It’s a hard deal to try to catch as many fish as you can. It’s fun,” said Mike Tylzynski of Ahsahka. “They can’t get them in the hatchery so we are going to try to catch as many as we can so we don’t have a shortfall in a few years.”

This year’s spring chinook return was smaller than it has been in a number of years and some of the hatcheries on the Clearwater River are in danger of falling short of their broodstock goals - the number of adult fish needed to produce the next generation of hatchery fish. Dworshak National Fish Hatchery has collected only about 565 of its broodstock target of 1,000. Clearwater Hatchery has collected just 483 of its target of 1,866.

If the hatcheries don’t meet their goals, there could be fewer juvenile fish released and that could lead to lower adult returns in the future.

Fisheries managers, which include officials from the state, Nez Perce Tribe and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, have been implementing extraordinary measures to try to meet the goals this year. For example, the Nez Perce Tribal Hatchery at Cherrylane has collected nearly 500 adults above and beyond its target of 970. The extra fish are being shared with Clearwater Hatchery. Other hatcheries in the region that have extra fish are sharing their surplus.

“In the Clearwater, we are making progress and we have also made plans to backfill shortfalls with (summer chinook) from the South Fork of the Salmon River if fish are available,” said Becky Johnson, production manager for the Nez Perce Tribe’s fisheries program, which runs the tribal hatchery and co-manages Dworshak with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The unusual hook-and-line collection project was Tylzynski’s idea. At a meeting held by Idaho Fish and Game officials following the early closure of the spring chinook fishing season, he suggested the department allow anglers like him to try to catch as many adult chinook as possible.

Department officials mulled the idea. They later moved to close the catch-and-release steelhead fishing on the North Fork at the request of the tribe. Anglers were catching far more spring chinook than steelhead and the tribe worried some of those fish might die and not be available for spawning.

“We asked them to close it,” Johnson said. “They were willing and we agreed to work with them on the hook-and-line fishery.”

Tylzynski said he sensed some skepticism from department officials but the program quickly proved successful.

“I think the first day (Monday) we caught like 24 or 25 in the morning and from then on they said catch as many as you can.”

So far they have caught more than 100 adults. The volunteers are happy to be fishing and feel good about what their efforts might mean down the road.

“It’s a good deal for us and good deal for the public,” said volunteer Randy Webster of Orofino. “The fish are going to be spawned and the smolts released and they will come back in a few years and we will catch them again. I’m just glad they are doing it.”

The ladder at Dworshak is still open and some adults continue to trickle in. But the anglers have been catching more chinook than the ladder has.

“We are kicking the ladder’s butt,” Tylzynski said.

The anglers are also hooking jack chinook that are not used for spawning. Those fish are being donated to local food banks.

“That is great. There is no sense in the fish going to waste,” Tylzinski said.

Jerry McGehee, manager of the Clearwater Hatchery, said the program shows why it’s a good idea for anglers to attend Fish and Game meetings and to offer suggestions. The program is modeled after one on the South Fork of the Clearwater where sport and tribal anglers have been enlisted to catch steelhead that are being used to establish a localized broodstock.

“It’s the exact reason that the Idaho Fish and Game really desires to have the public come to the public meetings we host,” he said.

Johnson said with the sharing of fish between hatcheries, the volunteer program and the use of summer chinook to backfill spring chinook shortfalls, there is a better chance of robust runs in the future.

“I would say with all these extraordinary measures we are optimistic we will get close to making our production targets.”

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