By Rick Itami
With salmon and steelhead runs across the Northwest experiencing low run counts in most river systems, anglers these days glom on to any visage of hope they can find.
For us Inland Empire anglers, the Nez Perce Tribe is providing such hope through their quiet efforts to reintroduce coho salmon to the Clearwater River and Grande Ronde River basins.
The Clearwater River Basin
History tells us that the once plentiful Clearwater River coho started declining in the 1800s because of habitat degradation. In 1927, the Washington Water Power Company (now Avista Corp.) constructed the Lewiston Dam to produce electricity and aid in flood control.
The original Lewiston Dam had a fish ladder, but it accommodated only steelhead resulting in the extirpation of Clearwater Chinook salmon and any remaining vestiges of a coho run. A second fish ladder was installed in the early 1950s that seemed to help the Chinook salmon run somewhat, but it was too late for the coho.
The Idaho Department of Fish and Game tried to re-establish coho in the Clearwater River Basin beginning in 1962. But that effort was discontinued after only 31 coho were counted at Lewiston Dam in 1969. The Lewiston Dam was finally taken out in 1973 after the construction of Lower Granite Dam on the Snake River caused a reservoir pool that backed up into the lower Clearwater River, rendering the Lewiston Dam ineffective. By 1985, coho salmon in Idaho were determined to be extinct.
The Nez Perce Tribe began working diligently to reintroduce coho salmon to the Clearwater River in 1995. Becky Johnson, Production Division Director for the Nez Perce Tribe’s Department of Fisheries Resource Management, is a key manager in the effort to reintroduce coho salmon to the Clearwater River Basin. Johnson provided the following information about how the Tribe carried out the project.
NOAA’s Pacific Coastal Salmon Recovery Fund and the Mitchell Act Program provided the Nez Perce Tribe with more than $5 million since 2000 for the project. The Clearwater River Basin Coho Restoration Project also got a jump-start when the Tribe was allowed to acquire surplus coho eggs from the Lower Columbia River as part of an agreement between Northwest tribes and state and federal agencies resulting from U. S. v. Oregon.
After initial supplementation efforts using Lower Columbia River coho eggs were successful, returning adult coho are now collected at Dworshak National Fish Hatchery, Kooskia National Fish Hatchery and Lapwai Creek. Over the years, the tribal program has grown and now releases 830,000 to 1.1 million smolts annually. Coho smolts are released each spring into Clear Creek and Lapwai Creek, both tributaries of the Clearwater River. In 2014, about 90 percent of the adult coho returning to Lapwai Creek were allowed to spawn naturally.
The final 2014 count of coho salmon over Lower Granite Dam — the last dam the fish have to negotiate before reaching the mouth of the Clearwater River in Lewiston, Idaho — was 18,048 fish. Mike Bisbee, Jr., Tribal Project Manager for the Clearwater Basin Coho Reintroduction Program says the 2014 adult return far-exceeded the project goal of 14,000 returning adults and gave hope for the future of the run.
To the Nez Perce Department of Fisheries Management, the success of the coho reintroduction program helps fulfill its goal of “putting fish in the rivers” to rebuild natural spawning runs and to restore harvest opportunities. This all came to fruition for the Nez Perce Tribe in 2014 and Bisbee says that he and his crew received a lot of pats on the back by Tribal members, both young and old. He and his crew were able to take dozens of excess coho out of the fish trap in Lapwai Creek and give them to Tribal members for the first time last year. In addition, many tribal members were successful harvesting coho individually. The return of the coho salmon has great significance to Tribal members as it helps bring back an important part of their cultural history.
For Clearwater River sports fishermen in Idaho, the reintroduction of coho salmon meant a totally new species to pursue. And some were wise enough to realize that this opened up an opportunity to catch a state record that would permanently put them in the record books.
Ethan Crawford of Moscow, Idaho was the first to set the Idaho record by catching a 9.4 pound, 31-inch female on October 18, 2014 — just a day after the Idaho Department of Fish and Game opened the coho season.
That record didn’t last long, however. On November 9, 2014, Steve Micek from Idaho Falls, Idaho hooked and landed an 11.8 pound coho while fishing with his son Greg. Micek said he hooked the fish on the last cast of the day, using a half-ounce silver KO Wobbler.
He wasn’t impressed with the fight, however, saying the fish “hit like a snag” and was in the net after only a few strong pulls. He attributes the lack of fight to “spawning behavior.”
I accidently hooked and landed a nice bright female coho with firm red meat. I say accidentally because I was trolling lighted lures for steelhead early in the morning before sunrise. When the sun came up, I decided to switch to fishing shrimp under bobbers. So I started reeling up my trolling rod with the lighted lure. As soon as I speeded up the retrieve, the fish struck and I happily landed my first Idaho coho that went into the cooler with some steelhead we had caught earlier.
Since many Idaho anglers have never fished for coho salmon before, they naturally have to learn how it’s done properly. Many successful anglers cruised the Clearwater River in their boats until they observed coho salmon rolling on the surface. Then they would throw spoons or spinners like the Blue Fox, twitched jigs, or trolled plugs for them. Favorite colors were silver, chartreuse, pink, cerise and black or combinations thereof.
Toby Wyatt, owner and operator of Reel Time Fishing (208-790-2128), a successful guide service out of Clarkston, Washington says that his clients did well trolling Mag Lips 3.5 plugs in the Doctor Death colors, drifting beads, and casting spoons like the silver Little Cleo or the pink Vibrax Blue Fox spinner.
He said that the bite was never really hot and five to six coho a day was the norm. He targeted the mouths of creeks and hatcheries where coho were released and said he observed a lot of fish that simply would not bite.
Then in 2015, poor ocean conditions caused near record low runs of coho salmon. The low number of adult returns caused the Tribe to miss its broodstock needs for the year which in turn, caused hatchery releases of smolts in 2017 to be low.
According to Johnson, “Once you get into a ‘hole’ like that it can be hard to climb out unless ocean conditions really turn around and are good again.”
In the fall of 2018, Johnson estimates 1,200 to 1,400 adult coho returned to the Clearwater River basin. While this was too low a number to allow for a sports fishing season, she says Tribal staff should have enough eggs to produce the 500,000 juveniles for the Clearwater program that will be released in the spring of 2020.
The Grande Ronde River Basin
With the initial success of the reintroduction of coho salmon to the Clearwater River basin, the Nez Perce Tribe turned its attention to the Grande Ronde River basin.
On March 9, 2017, the Tribe held a ceremony to release 500,000 coho salmon smolts into the Lostine River on the Woody Wolf Ranch just east of the town of Wallowa, Oregon. According to Johnson, coho once flourished in the Grande Ronde River Basin but the fish pretty much disappeared by around 1986.
This project is co-managed by the Nez Perce Tribe and the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife.
The release was made possible by obtaining Lower Columbia River coho smolts from the Cascade Hatchery on Tanner Creek — the same hatchery from which coho smolts came from for the initial releases into the Clearwater River Basin.
According to Bruce Eddy, Manager of the Eastern Region of the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, the initial goal for the reintroduction is to have broodstock for 500,000 juvenile coho salmon. When asked when the Department might open a coho season for sports anglers, Eddy said that it may be as long as 10 years, depending on all the factors involved.
The Nez Perce Tribe waited expectantly for the first returning adult coho to the Lostine River weir in the fall of 2018. Then on October 26, 2018, a female coho entered the weir — the first coho salmon to return to the Lostine River since 1966.
As Johnson put it, “It goes without saying that we’re super excited to see these coho return home.”
At the time of this writing, Nez Perce staff had trapped 125 coho that were later released to spawn naturally in the Lostine River.
Johnson says they think about 800 coho bound for the Lostine River crossed Lower Granite Dam, based on PIT tag data.
She adds, “Coho that didn’t make it all the way to the Lostine weir likely are spawning in the Grande Ronde and Wallowa Rivers,” of which the Lostine River is a tributary.
At any rate, it appears that the target return of 500 adults was met in 2018. That’s good news, even though the overall return did not allow a sports fishing season, which wasn’t anticipated anyway.
Johnson sees poor ocean conditions as one of the biggest challenges to the reintroduction of coho salmon. As she puts it, “Warm water, low prey base — not good conditions for salmon and steelhead.”
But looking into the future, Johnson says, “I am optimistic about attaining self-sustaining runs in the Snake Basin. Coho were once abundant here and the habitat in a lot of the tributaries up here is available and vacant. Developing a stock that is able to navigate 500 to 600 miles over eight dams out to the ocean and then have the stamina to migrate home that same distance over those same dams as an adult was the challenge when we started reintroduction in the 1990s. We’ve seen great success with that from our Clearwater program. I believe the greatest challenge now is climate change and tough ocean conditions.”
We sports anglers are cheering the Nez Perce Tribe on in their efforts to restore coho salmon to the Clearwater River and Grande Ronde River basins. Having had a taste of a fishable run of coho in 2014 gives us hope for more of the same in the future for both basins.
In this day and age, when disparate groups are fighting each other over fishing rights and oftentimes driven by selfish motivation, it’s refreshing to see the Nez Perce Tribe forging ahead with substantive actions to bring coho salmon back to the Inland Northwest with little fanfare.
Just as the benevolent Nez Perce Tribe saved Lewis and Clark’s Corps of Discovery from certain starvation in the fall of 1805, we hope they can now bring back sustainable runs of the magnificent coho salmon.
Editor’s note: Rick Itami is an angler and outdoor writer based in the Spokane area. His work has appeared in several Northwest sporting magazines, including ours.