Big fish, and lots of them. What’s not to like? When it comes to Idaho’s fall chinook, the answer is not as simple as you might think, but the fall chinook are in Idaho in near-record numbers and anglers are catching them.
“The runs have gotten progressively better, and so has the fishing,” chinook angler and Idaho Power fish biologist Stuart Rosenberger said.
As of Oct. 7, more than 53,000 fall chinook had already crossed Lower Granite Dam and entered Idaho, which was the third-largest run on record since counting at the dam started in 1975. It was about 4,000 fish shy of the second-best run in 2013 and more were arriving. [More than 58,000 had been seen at Lower Granite as of Oct. 19.]
Fall chinook are big because they spend longer in the ocean than their spring and summer-run cousins. According to Joe DuPont, Clearwater Regional Fisheries Manager, most fall chinook spend three years in the ocean, and lots are in the 15-to-20-pound range, and some exceed 50 pounds. DuPont suspects Idaho’s 54-pound, state-record chinook that has stood since 1956 could be broken by a lucky angler who catches a super-sized fall chinook.
While fall chinook runs have dramatically improved over the last decade, and fishing for them is growing in popularity, it’s still an overlooked fishing opportunity. Part of the reason is because the peak season is much shorter than it is for spring and summer chinook.
Many people fish for salmon because they are excellent to eat, so that’s a major attraction. As salmon get closer to spawning, their table quality declines. Chinook arriving in Idaho during spring and summer stay in good condition for weeks, but fall chinook arrive almost ready to spawn, so there’s a shorter window when they’re in the best shape and good to eat.
Catching a fall chinook you can harvest is another challenge. Only about a third of the returning fall chinook are available for harvest by sport anglers because they can only keep those with the adipose fin clipped. The ratio of clipped to unclipped fish is much lower than spring or summer fish. The numbers of clipped and unclipped fish released are specified in a management agreement negotiated among the states, tribes and federal agencies in the Columbia Basin.
The clip rates were developed in part to ensure sufficient numbers of fish remained in the system to supplement and rebuild the wild population.
But fewer “keepers” doesn’t mean you should ignore fall chinook fishing. There are many things that make it attractive.
A gentlemen’s fishery
Fall chinook start arriving in Idaho in mid-to-late August, and the peak run crosses Lower Granite Dam in mid-September. The end of the run usually crosses Lower Granite during late October or early November.
That puts them in Idaho at a very enjoyable time of year. Summer weather is cooling, river flows are low and friendly for boating, and prime fishing is so close to Lewiston it almost makes fall chinook an urban fishery.
Rosenberger describes fishing for fall chinook in the lower Snake River as a lot like fishing for kokanee salmon in Idaho’s reservoirs.
His favorite method is trolling a large flasher trailed by a “Brad’s Super Bait” filled with canned tuna. He uses a downrigger and usually trolls within five feet of the bottom unless he sees fish on his fish finder suspended in mid water.
“The fishing is pretty basic,” he said. “If you know how to operate a downrigger, that’s about all you need for this fishery.”
Rosenberger uses about 10 different colored plugs, and he said colors that fall chinook prefer seem to change from year to year.
He added anglers interested in catching and keeping fish should hit the Lewiston area in mid September because that’s when the fish are in the best shape and the run is at its peak.
“We catch a lot of really bright fish,” he said.
Anglers may have to land a number of fish to find that elusive keeper, but they’re sure to have fun catching these large, hard-fighting fish that are fresh from the ocean.
While September is prime in the Lewiston area, most of the chinook keep moving up the Snake River, which means anglers can catch them anywhere in the river system below Hells Canyon Dam.
As fish move farther upstream, anglers tend to shift their methods and tactics similar to those used for spring chinook in the Clearwater and Main Salmon rivers. They catch them by backtrolling plugs, or side drifting with bait and/or yarn. Rosenberger recommends “Kwikfish” or similar deep-diving plugs wrapped with sardines or herring fillets and fished in the deep holes.
When the fish stack up below Hells Canyon Dam, bank anglers also have success using bobbers and jigs. That area provides a rare opportunity for bank anglers to catch a fall chinook because the fish stay in the main rivers to spawn, unlike spring and summer chinook that migrate high into tributary streams that are easily accessible for bank angling.
The Snake, Clearwater and lower Salmon rivers are popular for steelhead anglers during late summer and fall, and fall chinook gives them added fishing opportunity. Anglers can target chinook, or fish for steelhead and hope to catch chinook incidentally. Chinook tend to hang closer to the bottom, and they also like deep holes. Deep-diving plugs will get you down to them, and you might also hook a steelhead, so incidental catching works both ways.
Idaho resumed fall chinook fishing in 2008 after it had been closed for decades, and runs have skyrocketed since then. The last three years have produced the largest fall chinook runs since 1975, which is the year Lower Granite Dam was completed.
During the last five years, the fall runs averaged 45,800 fish, which is 2 ½ times more than the previous five-year average. That’s part of the story behind their meteoric rise. Fall chinook were listed under the endangered species act in 1992, and during the 1990s, the average annual return was only 1,300 fish.
Like Idaho’s sockeye salmon, hatcheries were largely responsible for the return of Idaho’s fall chinook. Fish and Game is in partnership with Idaho Power, the Nez Perce Tribe, and Oregon and Washington on fall chinook recovery.
Hatcheries released about 5.9 million smolts during spring, and the increased adult returns in recent years resulted in more fish available for natural spawning and fishing opportunity.
DuPont said he’s optimistic Idaho will continue to have healthy returns of fall chinook. Hatchery smolt releases should remain steady, and fall chinook tend to do well in the ocean and return in good numbers, even when spring and summer chinook don’t.
“They (fall chinook) have a life cycle that’s doing well,” Dupont said. “It’s nice to have that diversity out there because they can do well when other runs aren’t doing so well.”
Fish and Game will continue to work on getting more liberal fishing rules in response to the large returns and the high proportion of unclipped fish.
“In the future, we would ideally like to see the harvest of some unclipped fish,” DuPont said. “If we could do that that fishery would really take off.”
Fish and Game would also like to move into the next phase of managing the fishery, and if large runs continue, fall chinook could be Idaho’s first salmon removed from the endangered species list.