Tag Archives: idaho

IDFG Spotlights Overlooked Autumn Stream Option: Whitefish

THE FOLLOWING IS A PRESS RELEASE FROM THE IDAHO DEPARTMENT OF FISH AND GAME

Anglers may be overlooking one of Idaho’s abundant and fun-to-catch stream fish – mountain whitefish – and late fall and winter are some of the best times to catch them.

Before talking about catching whitefish, let’s clear up a few misconceptions. Whitefish are not a so-called “trash fish,” they’re a native Idaho gamefish found in many rivers and streams, as well as some lakes. Some anglers might mistake them for suckers because of their slightly down-turned mouths, but whitefish are in the Salmonid family along with salmon, trout, char and grayling.

STEELHEAD AND TROUT GET TOP BILLING ON IDAHO’S WINTER STREAMS, BUT WHITEFISH OFFER A GOOD OPPORTUNITY AS WELL. (IAN MALEPEAI/IDFG)

Whitefish are plentiful in many rivers and streams throughout the state. According to Fish and Game’s stream surveys, it’s common for whitefish populations to outnumber trout by five to 10 times where the two coexist.

“Our past harvest records show catching whitefish was once a very popular activity in Idaho, but for some reason, interest has waned,” said Joe Kozfkay, Fish and Game’s State Fisheries Manager. “I can assure you it’s not for a lack of fish, and anglers should reconsider whitefish and take advantage of this good fishing opportunity for a very plentiful species.”

Because whitefish are so abundant, Fish and Game offers a generous bag limit, typically 25 per day, but check rules for the body of water you’re fishing to be sure.

Anglers should also be interested in whitefish because they will readily take a well-presented bait, fly or lure, they’re similar in size to an average trout, they’re scrappy when hooked, and they’re a tasty, yet admittedly, a little bony. They are particularly well suited to smoked and pickled preparations, similar to the famous whitefish of the Great Lakes.

Know your quarry

Whitefish spawn in the fall, typically in November, and school up during the spawning period, so where you catch one, you stand a decent chance of catching more.

While some anglers may question targeting whitefish while they’re spawning, angling pressure is unlikely to affect whitefish populations. One reason for the large population is each female produces many eggs. In one instance, a female sampled from the Big Wood River had 40,000 eggs. By comparison, trout average between 2,000 to 3,000 eggs with a large fish having 4,000 to 5,000.

A BIG LOST RIVER MOUNTAIN WHITEFISH. (BART GAMETT VIA IDFG)

Young whitefish grow rapidly through their first three-to-four years, typically reaching 10 to 12 inches, and after reaching maturity, whitefish usually spawn every fall for the rest of their lives.

Whitefish can be long-lived, but slow growing as they age. A four-year-old whitefish might be 12-inches long, while a 15-inch fish could be 8 to 10-years old. One 16-inch fish sampled from the South Fork of the Snake River was 19 years old.

How to catch them

Anglers don’t need special tackle to target whitefish. If you’re a trout angler, you probably already have what you need. Whitefish will readily take a single salmon egg, a chunk of worm, or other bait, such as maggots. They will also take artificial flies, including dry flies.

Anglers should remember whitefish have a relatively small mouth compared to trout, so smaller hooks, flies and pieces of bait work best. Same goes for lures, use smaller tackle.

Whitefish are frequently found in pools and deeper runs below riffles. They tend to congregate near the bottom, which is the most likely place to catch them. They will also eat insects off the surface, but most of their feeding is below the surface.

Fly anglers should try drifting weighted caddis, midge and stonefly nymphs through slow-to-moderate current, and they may want to add split shot or similar weights to quickly sink the flies near the bottom. Tandem flies with a larger, heavier fly trailed by a smaller fly is a good combination that will often attract hungry trout as well as whitefish.

For conventional tackle, try bouncing a maggot or salmon egg along the bottom using a few split shot, or small pencil lead. Using a float to suspend your bait near the bottom and allowing it to drift with the current is another good option.

Whitefish don’t limit trout

With the high abundance of whitefish, some anglers might think they are outcompeting trout, but research has shown that’s not the typically the case.

Fish managers have learned from research that the number of trout in Idaho rivers can be managed by adjusting the bag limits and/or increasing minimum size limits. In the long term, they found the limiting factor for trout populations in good habitat is often angling harvest, not competition from whitefish.

Catching whitefish is a great option for stream fishing during the colder months of the year. Grab your favorite trout rod, dress warm, and plan to bring home some whitefish for the smoker or frying pan.

Elk Research Benefited By $1+Million From RMEF

THE FOLLOWING IS A PRESS RELEASE FROM THE ROCKY MOUNTAIN ELK FOUNDATION

The Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation allocated more than one million dollars in funding to further elk-related scientific research in 2019. Those funds leveraged an additional $6.3 million in funding from other partners.

“Our mission to ensure the future of elk, other wildlife, their habitat and our hunting heritage would ring rather hollow without the constant infusion of up-to-date scientific research,” said Blake Henning, RMEF chief conservation officer.

CONSTRUCTION OF A FACILITY FOR RESEARCHERS LOOKING INTO ELK HOOF DISEASE BEGAN THIS PAST MAY AT WASHINGTON STATE UNIVERSITY IN PULLMAN AND FUNDING IN PART CAME FROM A $100,000 GRANT FROM THE ROCKY MOUNTAIN ELK FOUNDATION. (HENRY MORE JR., WSU/BCU, VIA RMEF)

So far in 2019, RMEF provided funding for 33 different research projects in California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, North Carolina, New Mexico, Oregon, South Dakota, Utah, Washington, Wisconsin and Wyoming. There are also three projects of national benefit.

Below are a few examples of RMEF’s 2019 research endeavors:

California – Northern California elk population and recruitment
Colorado – Impact of increasing human recreation on declining calf recruitment
Idaho – Elk response to motorized roads & trails
Montana – Effects of wildfire on elk forage and distribution
North Carolina – Great Smoky Mountains elk monitoring, connectivity & management
New Mexico – Effects of Mexican wolves on elk, habitat use
Oregon – Southern Blue Mountains elk distribution
South Dakota – Cow elk survival in the Black Hills
Utah – Factors limiting elk population growth in the Book Cliffs
Washington – Assist with construction of elk hoof disease research facility
Wisconsin – Effects of wolves on elk population dynamics
Wyoming – Determine migration pattern of Targhee elk herd in Greater Yellowstone Area
National – Chronic Wasting Disease Alliance applied research grant program

“It is imperative that we continue to work with partners on many fronts and in different locations, as we have for years, to gather all the quantified knowledge that we can about issues impacting elk and elk habitat,” added Henning.

About the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation:
Founded 35 years ago, fueled by hunters and a membership of nearly 235,000 strong, RMEF has conserved more than 7.5 million acres for elk and other wildlife. RMEF also works to open and improve public access, fund and advocate for science-based resource management, and ensure the future of America’s hunting heritage. Discover why “Hunting Is Conservation™” at rmef.org, elknetwork.com or 800-CALL ELK.

Most Of Washington Snake Closing For Steelhead; Chinook Fisheries Also Reduced

Washington fishery managers shut down steelheading on most of the state’s Snake and modified fall Chinook seasons on the river, all to protect low numbers of wild and hatchery B-runs bound for Idaho.

The changes take effect tomorrow, Sept. 29.

SNAKE STEELHEAD RUNS HAVE GONE FROM GOOD, WHEN THIS YOUNG ANGLER CAUGHT THIS ONE OFF WAWAWAI MUCH EARLIER THIS DECADE, TO BAD AND NOW WORSE IN RECENT YEARS. (YO-ZURI PHOTO CONTEST)

A pair of emergency rule change notices out late this afternoon have the details, but essentially both catch-and-release and retention of steelhead will end from the mouth of the Snake up to the Couse Creek boat ramp, in Hells Canyon.

It’s being done to “ensure that sufficient numbers of both wild and hatchery B-index fish return to their natal tributaries and hatcheries of origin in Idaho,” WDFW states.

It follows on the agency’s previous reduction of the hatchery steelhead limit on the Snake from three to one as this year’s overall run has come in way below the preseason forecast of 118,200 smaller A- and larger B-runs, with just 69,200 now expected to pass Bonneville Dam.

Steelhead fisheries were restricted on the Columbia throughout the summer, and tomorrow, a slate of closures on Idaho waters takes effect.

Inland Northwest steelhead runs have not been good since 2016, with recent years seeing reduced limits and closures up and down the system. This year’s run will be among the lowest on record.

Meanwhile, WDFW is also reducing the fall Chinook fishery on the Snake, again to protect B-runs.

They’re closing it below Lower Granite Dam, except for a 1.4-mile “Lyons Ferry Bubble Fishery” from the Highway 261 bridge downstream.

And they’re reducing the amount of time the waters above and below Clarkston were set to stay open, from through Oct. 31 to now just Oct. 13.

Above Couse Creek, Chinook season continues through Halloween.

BILL STANLEY SHOWS OFF A FALL CHINOOK CAUGHT ON THE SNAKE IN A PAST SEASON. (YO-ZURI PHOTO CONTEST)

“The Fall Chinook return is large enough to continue to allow some harvest opportunities within the Snake River fisheries, while providing protection of B-index steelhead,” the agency stated in an e-reg.

Honestly, even as managers are both trying to protect critically low stocks and eke out fishing opportunity on stronger ones, it’s a bit much to wrap your head around at the end of an 8-5 shift.

Best bet is to refer to the eregs in the links above.

Steelheading To Close On Clearwater, Snake; IDFG: ‘No Surplus’ For Fishery

THE FOLLOWING IS A PRESS RELEASE FROM THE IDAHO DEPARTMENT OF FISH AND WILDLIFE

On Friday, Sept. 20, the Idaho Fish and Game Commission voted to close all steelhead seasons on the Clearwater River because the number of returning adult hatchery fish is less than the number needed for broodstock, and there is no surplus to provide a fishery.

IDAHO’S STEELHEADING CLOSURE MEANS THAT EVEN CATCH-AND-RELEASE FISHING FOR UNCLIPPED A- AND B-RUNS, LIKE THIS ONE LANDED ON THE SOUTH FORK CLEARWATER, WILL NOT BE ALLOWED IN THE CLEARWATER DRAINAGE. (DAIWA PHOTO CONTEST)

The closure is effective at midnight on Sept. 29, 2019, and covers the Clearwater River upstream to the confluence of the Middle Fork and South Fork, along with the North Fork, Middle Fork and South Fork tributaries. The section of the Snake River downstream from the Couse Creek boat ramp to the Idaho/Washington state line will also be closed to protect Clearwater-bound steelhead. The closure in the Clearwater River drainage is consistent with harvest restrictions put in place in fisheries on the mainstem Columbia River by the Oregon and Washington Fish and Wildlife Departments.

Consistent with existing rules that prohibit targeting steelhead or salmon where there is no open season, anglers will not be allowed to fish for steelhead in the Clearwater River drainage after the fishery is closed, even catch-and-release.

The Clearwater River drainage closure is in addition to the already-restricted fishery the commission approved for statewide steelhead fishing during their August meeting. The existing seasons remain in place for steelhead fisheries in the Salmon and Snake river basins.

Idaho Fish and Game biologists have been tracking steelhead returns closely, and the number of Clearwater-bound hatchery steelhead has continued to fall short of projections. According to Lance Hebdon, anadromous fishery manager for Idaho Fish and Game, while the return of wild, Clearwater-bound steelhead is tracking close to the preseason forecast, the return of hatchery-origin steelhead to the Clearwater River is substantially below what was expected.

Through Sept. 18, biologists estimate about 1,158 hatchery steelhead destined for the Clearwater River have passed Bonneville Dam based on PIT tags. The small, electronic tags are embedded in fish and help biologists know which river migrating steelhead are destined for. On average, about 50 percent of the hatchery steelhead returning to the Clearwater River would have passed Bonneville Dam by Sept. 18.

“Based on average run timing, we estimate that this will result in approximately 2,300 fish crossing Bonneville Dam by the end of the season,” Hebdon said. “The result for Idaho anglers is that only 1,700 hatchery steelhead destined for the Clearwater River will make it to Lower Granite Dam by the end of the season.”

In order to meet broodstock needs for Clearwater River hatcheries (a total of 1,352 fish), 100 percent of the steelhead destined for the North Fork Clearwater River, and a high percentage of the fish destined for the South Fork Clearwater River would have to be collected, leaving no surplus fish for harvest.

Although the steelhead fishery will be closed in the Clearwater River basin, there will be no changes to the ongoing fall Chinook season, which is scheduled to close on Oct. 13. In addition, the commission approved a Coho salmon fishery in the Clearwater River basin during their conference call on Sept. 20. This Coho fishery is open effective immediately, and will run concurrent with the fall Chinook fishery.

Because these fisheries will close Oct. 13, or earlier if catch limits are attained, any incidental impact on Clearwater hatchery steelhead is expected to be minimal.

“Early in the fall, many of the steelhead in the Clearwater river basin are actually fish destined for the Salmon and Grande Ronde rivers, which have pulled into the Clearwater until water temperatures in the Snake River start to cool off,” Hebdon said. “The main component of the Clearwater River steelhead run starts arriving in the middle of October.”

2019 Idaho Elk, Mule Deer, Whitetail Hunting Forecast

THE FOLLOWING STORY IS BY ROGER PHILLIPS OF THE IDAHO DEPARTMENT OF FISH AND GAME

Idaho deer and elk hunters should see good to excellent hunting for elk and white-tailed deer, and average mule deer hunting in 2019, but that’s likely to vary by location across the state.

TRASK APPLEGATE AND HIS GRANDFATHER LARRY APPLEGATE POSE WITH THE LADS 2014 CLEARWATER WHITETAIL. (HUNTING PHOTO CONTEST)

A difficult winter for mule deer fawns took its toll on herds for the second time in three years, which will affect the numbers and age classes of bucks. However, winter had a lesser effect on whitetails in North Idaho and the Clearwater area. White-tailed deer herds there have remained strong and resilient in recent years based on hunter harvest.

Elk typically do not succumb to winter kill except under extreme conditions, and elk herds continue to do well in most areas of the state and are on track to match some historic-high harvests.

ELK

Idaho elk hunters have recently enjoyed excellent hunting with 22,325 elk taken in 2018, which ranks among the top-10, all-time harvests (ninth).

“Elk hunting is good, and it’s been good for a number of years, and I don’t think that’s going to change,” Fish and Game’s Deer/Elk Coordinator Daryl Meints said.

Fish and Game is currently meeting or exceeding its elk population goals in 17 of 22 elk zones, he said.

The statewide elk harvest has exceeded 20,000 annually for the last five years, which has not happened since the all-time high harvests between 1988-96. There’s no indication that the 2019 harvest won’t be similar to 2018 and continue that trend.

BOB NORMINGTON SHOWS OFF HIS BIG NORTH IDAHO BULL. (HUNTING PHOTO CONTEST)

During 2018-19 winter, Fish and Game managers monitored 868 radio collared elk in 21 areas of the state. Adult cow survival was 98 percent and calf survival was 66 percent. The leading cause of mortality for both adult cow elk and calves was mountain lions.

Meints said part of the reason for the robust herds is wildlife managers often have more control over elk populations than they do over deer because one bad winter can take a significant percentage of the deer population, but elk tend to be hardier and capable of withstanding harsh winters.

Meints also noted that Fish and Game’s 2014 elk plan called for more elk in many areas of the state, which coincided with a long string of mild winters prior to 2016-17 that helped elk herds to expand.

“All the stars perfectly aligned,” he said, adding that elk “are a great pioneer species that have expanded into new areas, and they are doing well.”

Like elk, hunters have adapted and shifted hunting efforts toward “front country” areas where herds are thriving, rather than backcountry and wilderness areas that drew many elk hunters in the past.

“Elk and elk hunters have redistributed themselves across the landscape,” Meints said.

Hunter numbers have correspondingly grown as word has gotten out about Idaho’s elk hunting returning to some of its past glory. Hunter numbers have exceeded 100,000 annually over the last five years. The allotment of nonresident elk tags has already sold out in 2019, and it’s the third-straight year that has occurred.

Aside from healthy herds, part of the draw for elk hunters is Fish and Game’s generous allocation of over-the-counter, general hunt tags, and a broad range of hunting opportunity, particularly for archery hunters.

“Over the last five to 10 years, Idaho has become a destination for archery elk hunting, and I don’t think there’s a better place for it right now,” Meints said.

2018 harvest at a glance

Total elk harvest: 22,325
Overall hunter success rate: 23.5 percent
Antlered: 11,326
Antlerless: 10,999
Taken during general hunts: 13,473 (18.2 percent success rate)
Taken during controlled hunts: 8,853 (42 percent success rate)

MULE DEER

Forgive the cliche, but Idaho’s mule deer population is currently in a half empty/half full situation. Last year’s harvest was within 5 percent (about a thousand animals) of the 10-year average, and this year’s harvest is likely to be similar.

But prior to 2016, Idaho had five consecutive mild winters, which helped build mule deer throughout the state, mostly in the south and central areas where mule deer dominate. Then the 2016-17 winter hit, which took a large segment of that year’s fawn crop. Fish and Game restricted doe harvest in an attempt to quickly rebuild herds, which was reflected in the 2017 deer harvest being 11,573 fewer deer than in the 2016 harvest.

The harvest saw a slight bump in 2018, up about 1,500 mule deer, and this fall’s mule deer harvest is likely to be similar to last year, or a little smaller.

BUZZ RAMSEY BAGGED THIS IDAHO MULE DEER BUCK DURING 2016’S SEASON WITH A 370-YARD SHOT. (BUZZ RAMSEY)

Deep snowfall in early 2019 followed by a prolonged wet and cool spring caused winter fawn survival to take a substantial dip for the second time in three years.

“That record snow pack that we observed in February did not do the fawns any favors,” said Meints. “It was not like the winter of 2016-17, but we were below the long-term average for fawn survival.”

About 46 percent of radio collared fawns survived last winter, which is below the 20-year average of 58-percent survival, but still above the 30-percent survival in the 2016-17 winter.

Fawn survival is significant because yearling, or two-point bucks (which were born last year), typically make up a significant portion of the buck harvest. Many of the fawns that died last winter would have been two-point bucks this fall.

However, there are still older bucks remaining in the herds, and considering mule deer have faced two of the worst winters in recent memory over the past three years, harvest will still likely be close to the 10-year average, or slightly below it, for 2019.

Wildlife managers saw normal winter survival of radio collared mule deer does, which typically exceeds 90 percent, so if winter weather returns to average, there could be a modest increase in the herds next year.

It should also be noted that fawn survival was not consistent throughout the state, so some areas were closer to average, while others were below. The number of animals available for hunters and hunter success will vary significantly throughout mule deer country.

2018 harvest at a glance

Total mule deer harvest: 26,977
Overall hunter success rate: 31.1 percent
Antlered: 21,471
Antlerless: 5,506
Taken during general hunts: 20,060 (27.1 percent success rate)
Taken during controlled hunts: 6,917 (55.3 percent success rate)

WHITE-TAILED DEER

All signs point to another good year for whitetail hunters with lots of opportunity and the chance to get a bigger buck for those who put in the time and effort.

The past five years have been the most productive in Idaho’s history in terms of white-tailed deer harvest, which has been above 25,000 annually during that span.

Hunters harvested 25,134 whitetails in 2018, which ranks fifth-best all-time. Success rates, the number of 5-point deer harvested, and hunter numbers in 2018 also remained fairly consistent with recent years. With abundant whitetail herds and lots of general season, either-sex hunting opportunity, it looks like the trend will continue into 2019.

“Over the last few years we’ve been staying really steady on hunter numbers and hunter success and percent 5-point bucks in the harvest,” Meints said. “Given that, one would surmise that whitetail populations are doing quite well.”

Historically, the vast majority of the whitetail harvest has occurred in the Panhandle and Clearwater regions. It was no different in 2018, as the white-tailed deer harvest in these regions accounted for 94 percent of the statewide total.

Northern Idaho’s whitetail herds appear to be in good shape after the winter, which was late to arrive in Northern Idaho. Snowfall was well below average until mid-February, when winter arrived with a vengeance — breaking longstanding records in places like Lewiston and on the Palouse. Despite the late, heavy snow, this winter doesn’t appear to have taken a heavy toll on whitetail herds.

“We observed some mortality, but it was not excessive,” according to Regional Wildlife Manager Clay Hickey. “We tended to see it in places where we had lots of deer, which might not have been in as good of shape going into the winter because of high deer densities. Even then, mortality was spotty.”

In the past, Fish and Game has not radio collared whitetail fawns and does each winter to monitor their survival, nor have they done annual population surveys for whitetails. Biologists have instead relied on other data to determine trends in the population, including harvest data.

This is changing under the new White-Tailed Deer Management Plan for 2020-25. This winter, Fish and Game researchers started a robust, long-term research plan for the species, which will ultimately bring population monitoring for whitetails up to the same level as mule deer.

“This was the first year – the pilot study, if you will,” Meints said. “But this will be ongoing for years, and expanding across Northern Idaho.”

For now, wildlife managers use the historical metrics to evaluate the white-tailed deer population, and whitetail hunting is meeting nearly all of the department’s objectives for the number of hunters, hunter days, buck harvest, and percentage of five point bucks in the harvest.

Idaho has not seen any widespread outbreaks of whitetail diseases since 2003, and no outbreaks have been detected this year. But with parts of Northern Idaho experiencing dry conditions during summer, Meints said there needs to be continued monitoring for epizootic hemorrhagic disease (EHD), a virus that is spread in whitetail populations via bites from gnats or midges. When water sources dry up and deer are concentrated on those that remain, the potential for a large-scale outbreak is greater.

“This virus is out there and present all the time, and you lose some deer to it every year,” Meints said. “But under the right environmental conditions, it can lead to some substantial losses in a short amount of time.”

2018 harvest at a glance

Total white-tailed deer: 25,134
Overall hunter success rate: 41.5 percent
Antlered: 15,163
Antlerless: 9,969
Taken during general hunts: 21,975 (40.2 percent success rate)
Taken during controlled hunts: 3,158 (53.8 percent success rate)

Here are regional outlooks compiled by regional wildlife managers and communications managers in each Fish and Game region.

PANHANDLE REGION

This year should be productive for deer and elk in the Panhandle, however, many factors can impact hunter success. Weather conditions during the hunting season affect big game behavior and distribution. Hot, dry weather can result in game using green agriculture fields or thick, timbered areas. Rain can improve availability of quality, native forage, which can lead to big game being more widely dispersed on the landscape.

The winter of 2018-19 started relatively mild in most parts of the region until February, when some areas of the Panhandle received record monthly snowfall. Elk calf survival from six months to a year was around 60 percent in Unit 6. During mild winters, calf survival was about 80 percent compared to the most recent hard winters when survival was about 45 percent.

Due to lower calf survival after the winters of 2017 and 2018, there may be fewer raghorn bulls in some areas this year. Cow survival has remained relatively high (94 percent) regardless of winter conditions, and mature bulls should be roaming the woods this fall.

Mule deer hunters intending on hunting Unit 1 should beware of a season change in that unit. Mule deer buck harvest on the “Regular Tag – General Any Weapon” season now ends on Nov. 20. Elk hunters in the Panhandle should also review the current big game rules because some controlled hunt area boundaries have changed.

Scouting potential hunting areas may give hunters an idea of animal distribution and behavior. Hunters can also use preseason scouting to check road and trail accessibility and conditions, as well as make landowner contacts if they are planning to hunt on or near private property.

CLEARWATER REGION

Early winter conditions in the Clearwater were exceptionally mild. However, winter arrived with a vengeance in February, with record-setting snowfall that month. Probably due to the late onset of the severe conditions, no significant winter mortality was detected on the regions’ big game herds. Some spotty white-tailed deer mortality was observed, but it did not appear to be widespread or likely to cause detectable declines at the population level.

Spring and early summer conditions were substantially cooler and wetter than normal. These conditions have resulted in very good summer habitat conditions for regional big game herds.

The region possesses healthy white-tailed deer populations, and therefore, abundant hunting opportunity with high success rates and a high percentage of bucks harvested being larger than 4 and 5-points. The most productive whitetail units in the region tend to be those units either at the agriculture/timber interface, or units with substantial timber harvest and a variety of habitats (Units 8, 8A, 10A, 11, and 11A).

Although whitetail populations appear to be strong across the region and all management criteria are being met, social concerns have resulted in some reductions in whitetail hunting opportunities. Unit 10A will again close earlier than surrounding units, and extra antlerless hunting opportunities will be reduced in many hunts across the region.

Mule deer

The most robust mule deer populations in the region are located along the Snake and Salmon River breaks (units 11, 13, 14, and 18). These units are limited to controlled hunts. Some mule deer occur in the other units across the region, albeit at relatively low densities. However, those hunters willing to put forth the effort to get into some of the regions’ backcountry areas (Units 16A, 17, 19, and 20) can find good numbers of mule deer during general seasons.

Elk

Elk numbers continue to lag in the Lolo and Selway Zones, although some positive signs in calf recruitment levels have been observed in recent years. Populations have also declined in portions of the Elk City and Hells Canyon Zones, resulting in a reduction of hunting opportunities in these zones. Populations appear to be relatively stable in the Dworshak and Palouse Zones.

SOUTHWEST REGION

Winter survival of mule deer fawns in Unit 39 was slightly lower than the long-term average, but the number of yearling bucks will be similar to last year. Overall deer numbers have been increasing in Unit 39 for the last several years. When surveyed in January 2018, wintering deer in Unit 39 were up about 5,000 animals from the 2010 count. Adult winter survival has been consistently high. The antlerless youth season in Unit 39 runs to Oct. 31 in 2019 and coincides with the regular season.

Winter fawn survival in Units 33, 34 and 35 was average. Mule deer are widely scattered in these units, with only about 4,500 animals wintering along the South Fork of the Payette River. There is no youth antlerless season for mule deer in these units. However, youth are allowed to harvest antlerless white-tailed deer.

Elk

Elk calf survival in the Sawtooth Zone was above the long-term average. Cow survival has been consistently high the past five years, which has allowed this herd to continue to grow. As a result of positive growth, the Fish and Game Commission approved an increase in the number of tags available on both the A (434 additional tags) and B (274 additional tags) tags. Those tags are sold out for 2019.

The Boise River Zone has seen consistently high winter calf and cow survival rates during the past five years. The population has remained stable due to antlerless harvest opportunity. Elk are moving back into the areas burned during the 2016 Pioneer Fire.

McCALL REGION

Winter survival for mule deer fawns in Weiser and McCall areas was slightly lower than the long-term average, which will result in fewer yearling bucks available to hunters this year. Adult survival was better, so the number of mature bucks in these units should be similar to last year.

A few changes were made to mule deer seasons in Units 31, 32 and 32A: youth hunting on a regular deer tag may harvest antlered or antlerless animals from Oct. 10–16, but may only harvest antlered deer during the remainder of the season (Oct 17-24).

Elk

Last winter, biologists completed helicopter surveys for elk in the Weiser and Brownlee Zones. Data indicated that the elk populations in both zones are above Fish and Game’s objectives. In the Brownlee Zone, bull elk numbers have increased substantially, and are far above the department’s objectives. In the Weiser Zone, elk numbers have declined since the previous survey due to additional hunting opportunity, but are still above objectives.

These surveys resulted in changes to hunting seasons. In Brownlee, controlled hunt tags were added for both bull and cow elk. In Weiser, the A-tag antlerless season was shortened by one week. During the B-tag antlerless season, hunters no longer have to remain within one mile of private cultivated fields in Units 22 and 32A. Several shoulder seasons (late summer and winter hunts) were shortened.

Elk numbers are within objectives in the McCall Zone. There were no surveys or significant changes to regulations in this zone for 2019.

MAGIC VALLEY REGION

Mule deer populations appear to be holding steady in the region. Last winter had a slight decrease in fawn survival, which may mean hunters will see fewer yearling bucks this fall.

Due to a wet spring, habitat conditions have been excellent for both forage and available water. Hunters will be pleased to know that with these improved conditions antler growth will be excellent, and hunters can expect to see some large bucks for harvest this year.

With abundant moisture and feed, animals will be widely dispersed across the landscape and not concentrated around water or good feed. Plan the hunts accordingly because historic hunting spots may not have the same amount of game in it this year, so be flexible, mobile and adapt to the conditions.

Elk

Elk numbers remain strong and are expanding in all elk zones, which puts them at, or above, harvest and population management objectives. Overwinter calf survival continues to be strong.

Due to the healthy numbers of elk, more over-the-counter elk hunting opportunities were provided this year, especially for antlerless elk.

Like mule deer, habitat conditions for elk have been excellent for both forage and available water. Abundant elk herds will benefit from these improved conditions, resulting in excellent antler growth, and hunters should see (and hopefully harvest) some large bulls this year. As with deer, hunters should anticipate that elk may be more dispersed, meaning that hunters may need to venture away from their “traditional” hunting locations.

Regional biologists routinely hear questions about how well animals such as elk survive during our harsh winter conditions. While Southern Idaho winters can be harsh, concerns over hard winters and lots of winter mortality are generally unfounded. The vast majority of animals migrate out of their summer range, leaving the high country where snow accumulates, such as in the Wood River Valley, to winter in lower elevations like the Bennett Hills, where the winter snow is not as deep.

SOUTHEAST REGION

The winters from 2012 through 2016 were relatively mild in Southeastern Idaho, which was good news for big game populations and hunters alike. Elk and mule deer numbers were increasing and hunters were reporting some of the best success rates the area had seen in a while.

The winter of 2016-17 was extremely severe, and big game populations experienced higher than normal mortality. In particular, mule deer populations are negatively impacted, especially fawns and older deer. Additionally, doe mule deer that survive such harsh winters are typically in poor body condition, which results in lower reproductive rates and survival of fawns the subsequent year.

The winter of 2017-18 was milder, offering some reprieve. However, the effects of the previous harsh winter were evident during December herd composition surveys as the number of fawns per 100 does in the most affected population had dropped from nearly 80:100 during December 2017 to just over 50:100 in December 2018. Hunter success increased slightly in the fall of 2018 compared to the significant decline in hunter success the year prior to that severe winter. The 2018-19 winter was again severe and extended late into the spring, likely resulting in higher fawn mortality.

Here is what that could mean to hunters:

Deer in Southeast Idaho have not rebounded from the extremely severe 2016-17 winter, and population models suggest that the overall population has not grown since that time. However, even if a population is stable, the number of bucks available to harvest changes each year, and it is dependent on winter fawn survival.

For example, in 2015, when winter fawn survival was very high, 47 percent of antlered deer at check stations were yearlings, but in 2017 (after a severe winter) only 16 percent were yearlings. In summary, success rates in 2017 were quite low partially because winter fawn survival was so low.

Success rates then increased in 2018 because winter fawn survival had been higher during the 2017-18 winter (resulting in more yearling bucks), not because there were more deer in the herds.

Biologists expect overall harvest this fall to be similar to 2018, or slightly below. This would be the result of average, or slightly below-average, winter fawn survival. Fish and Game biologists expect the proportion of adult bucks (at least two years old) in the harvest this fall to increase, and the proportion of yearling bucks harvested to decrease compared with the 2018 hunting season. This information highlights the large annual variations in mule deer populations depending on environmental conditions.

Elk

Elk are more resilient to harsh winter conditions than deer, and consequently, they are doing well across the region as evidenced by aerial surveys conducted the past few years. Hunters should expect good elk hunting this fall.

UPPER SNAKE REGION

Deer and elk on the westside of the region fared better than those on the east side. This is largely due to harsh winter conditions of crusty and deep snow accumulating across much of the eastern part of the state.

Mule Deer

Mule deer hunters in the Upper Snake will likely see fewer two points because the winter survival for fawns was low. Mule deer fawn survival studies for the 2018-19 winter showed a 50 to 60 percent mortality in those populations that were directly monitored in the Upper Snake.

Unit 59A = 59 percent mule deer fawn mortality
Unit 50 = 50 percent mule deer fawn mortality
Unit 67 = 60 percent mule deer fawn Mortality

“Teton Canyon and Island Park likely had higher mortality rates than this based on winter severity and adult doe mortality,” said Curtis Hendricks, Wildlife Manager in the Upper Snake. “I would bet that fawn mortality in these areas was over 70 percent, and the Tex Creek population was likely similar to the Palisades population at around 60 percent.”

Adult doe mortality reached 15 percent in some areas of the Upper Snake, causing concern for wildlife managers.

“Adult doe mortality for Teton and Island Park is a bit high and something we will pay close attention to,” Hendricks said. “Our adjustments to mule deer hunting opportunity were likely well founded by the information.”

The following regulation changes were made to the 2019-20 seasons to reduce pressure on antlerless deer harvest and bolster mule deer populations in the Upper Snake:

50 percent reduction in all either-sex hunts except units 66 and 69 where all either sex hunts are eliminated.
Youth Antlerless harvest is restricted to one week (Oct. 10 to 16) in all general hunt units (50, 51, 58, 59, 59A, 60, 60A, 61, 62, 62A, 63, 64, 65, and 67), except units 66 and 69 where all youth antlerless harvest is eliminated.

Elk

Elk hunters will be happy to hear that despite the harsh winter conditions and predation, elk herds in the Upper Snake did well last winter. All of the region’s elk zones are at or above objective for bulls and cows, so hunters should expect to see a good number of elk similar to the abundance of recent years.
Salmon Region

Stable to increasing mule deer populations across the Salmon Region from 2012 through 2016 were due to favorable year-round weather conditions. Populations decreased significantly in 2017 following an extended period of deep snow and cold weather during the 2016-17 winter. Poor condition does coming out of the 2016-17 winter then produced a well-below average of 49 fawns per 100 does. A return to normal summer, fall, and winter conditions in 2018 and 2019 have improved deer production in the region. However, marginal spring weather conditions in 2018 and 2019 have produced below average fawn spring survival rates of 50 and 37 percent, respectively. Hunters will likely see no significant change in the number of bucks in the region from last year.

Elk populations continue to do well in the Salmon Region, and elk hunting will be good this year. Elk Zones east of U.S. 93 (Beaverhead, Lemhi, and Pioneer) are at or above elk plan objectives, and additional general season A and B-tag antlerless elk, and antlered elk control permit opportunities are available this fall. Elk Zones west of U.S. 93 (Salmon, Middle Fork) are at, or slightly below, objectives, and hunting success will be similar to last year.

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Changes, Fee Increase Could Be Coming For Nonresidents Who Hunt Idaho

THE FOLLOWING IS A PRESS RELEASE FROM THE IDAHO DEPARTMENT OF FISH AND GAME

The Idaho Fish and Game Commission is looking at ways to manage the number and distribution of nonresident big game hunters in response to concerns about hunter crowding and congestion in some popular hunting areas.

TO OFFSET POTENTIAL REVENUE LOSSES FROM REDUCING NONRESIDENT LICENSES, IDAHO HUNTING MANAGERS ARE ASKING STATE LEGISLATORS TO INCREASE FEES FOR SPORTSMEN WHO COME FROM WASHINGTON, OREGON AND ELSEWHERE TO CHASE WHITETAIL AND OTHER SPECIES.. (DAVE ALBISTON, VIA IDFG)

Fish and Game commissioners and staff heard from resident hunters while updating the department’s deer management plans, and there were consistent and repeated complaints about hunter crowding.

While commissioners can currently regulate the number of nonresident hunters in big game controlled hunts, and in elk zones with limited numbers of tags, they cannot manage the distribution of nonresident hunters participating in general hunts.

To address resident hunters’ concerns, the Commission recently adopted a proposed rule to allow the Commission the ability to limit nonresident tags in any elk zone, or big game hunting unit for deer tags, to a number not less than 10 percent of the previous five-year average of all hunters in a unit or zone. The proposed rule must be approved by the 2020 Legislature before it could take effect.

Commissioners also do not want to reduce services currently provided to sportsmen and women. To offset potential future revenue losses from selling fewer nonresident licenses and tags due to managing nonresident participation in certain areas, the department has proposed legislation to the Idaho Governor’s Office that would increase nonresident fees for the first time since 2009.

Based on fiscal year 2019 license sales, nonresidents contributed 57 percent of all of Fish and Game’s license and tag revenue, so reductions in nonresident sales could reduce revenue available for fish and wildlife management.

The proposed nonresident fee increase includes a general, 10 percent hike for most nonresident fees, with larger increases for big game tags and related items, such as archery and muzzleloader permits. It would also adjust reduced-price licenses, such as those for mentored juniors, to a 50 percent discount in relation to the applicable adult item.

Prices for nonresident wolf tags and Disabled American Veteran tags would not change, and there is no proposed change for resident fees, which increased in 2017.

The effective date of the proposed nonresident fee increase is scheduled for the 2021 licensing year, which would coincide with the Commission’s intent to limit nonresident participation in general big game hunts.

$100,000 RMEF Grant Awarded For WSU Elk Hoof Disease Research Facility

THE FOLLOWING IS A PRESS RELEASE FROM THE ROCKY MOUNTAIN ELK FOUNDATION

The Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation awarded a $100,000 grant to Washington State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine to assist with construction of its elk hoof disease research facility. Construction began in May on campus in Pullman, Washington.

CONSTRUCTION OF A FACILITY FOR RESEARCHERS LOOKING INTO ELK HOOF DISEASE BEGAN THIS PAST MAY AT WASHINGTON STATE UNIVERSITY IN PULLMAN AND FUNDING IN PART CAME FROM A $100,000 GRANT FROM THE ROCKY MOUNTAIN ELK FOUNDATION. (HENRY MORE JR., WSU/BCU, VIA RMEF)

“Hoof disease is affecting more and more elk in the Pacific Northwest,” said Blake Henning, RMEF chief conservation officer. “This facility will give researchers a hands-on opportunity to better determine its cause as well as why and how it spreads.”

The $1.2 million, state-of-the-art structure is the only such operation of its kind in the world and will house captive elk needed to study the disease in a secure, controlled environment. It will cover four acres and include 10 isolation pens, a handling facility and two 1.5-acre holding pastures.

Based within the Department of Veterinary Microbiology and Pathology, and with the oversight of WSU’s Environmental Health and Safety and animal care programs, the facility will provide optimal compliance with biosecurity and animal care and use regulation.

“I am eager to get started with research on captive elk that will be housed in the facility,” said veterinarian Margaret Wild, the lead scientist for the program. “RMEF’s generous contribution could not have come at a better time during construction. This is the first grant we’ve received to supplement our funding and it makes it apparent the organization and its members, along with WSU, are dedicated to ensuring elk herds remain healthy and viable for future generations.”

Elk hoof disease is known in the scientific community as Treponeme-associated hoof disease or TAHD. Biologists confirmed the disease in elk herds across much of southwest Washington as well as southern Oregon and western Idaho.

Findings from research conducted at the facility will assist wildlife agencies to better manage the impacts of hoof disease in elk populations.

“We had the opportunity to sit down with Dr. Margaret Wild, lead scientist during a visit to RMEF headquarters. We look forward to working with her and her staff to learn more about this disease,” added Henning.

RMEF provided funding in the past to assist the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife with hoof disease testing and research.

In 2019 alone, RMEF so far donated more than $1 million in research funding for the benefit of elk-related science.

IDFG Deploys 800+ Trail Cams To Get ‘Most Robust, Accurate’ Wolf Count

THE FOLLOWING IS A PRESS RELEASE FROM THE IDAHO DEPARTMENT OF FISH AND GAME

How many wolves are on the landscape in Idaho? That’s an often-asked question that Idaho Fish and Game is aiming to answer using game cameras during a new statewide population monitoring program.

In recent months, Fish and Game staff have deployed over 800 game cameras in a high-density grid throughout the state, which will take millions of pictures. When Fish and Game staff collect the cameras at the end of September, researchers will download and analyze the photos and apply statistical modeling to estimate the population.

IDAHO WILDLIFE BIOLOGIST MICHELLE KEMNER SETS UP A GAME CAMERA AS PART OF THE DEPARTMENT OF FISH AND GAME’S NEW WOLF MONITORING PROGRAM, WHICH WILL USE CAMERAS TO GENERATE THE FIRST POPULATION ESTIMATE OF WOLVES IN IDAHO SINCE 2015. (BRIAN PEARSON, IDFG)

Sifting through millions of photos will be labor intensive, but Fish and Game Wildlife Research Manager Mark Hurley is aiming to early next year have the most robust and accurate count of wolves ever in Idaho, and the first scientific population estimate since 2015.

Wolf monitoring evolves with changing wolf populations

Wolves were federally reintroduced into Idaho, Wyoming and Montana in 1995 and 1996. Between 1996 and 2005, Idaho’s wolf population was estimated using a “total count” technique to generate an estimate of the statewide population, which was appropriate when the total population was small and many wolves wore radio collars. Biologists could track individual animals back to their packs, get an estimate of pack sizes and then estimate the statewide population.

From 2006 to 2016, Fish and Game’s wolf monitoring program remained under federal oversight. Until May 2016, the department was required to maintain enough radio collared wolves to be able to demonstrate that there were more than 15 breeding pairs of wolves in that state and more than 150 total wolves. .

“This kind of monitoring was really targeted at federal Endangered Species Act recovery goals — that’s why we were doing that. That sort of effort works with very small populations,” Hurley said.

During this period, biologists counted the number of wolves within each pack from aircraft, or on the ground, during early winter, and used that information to calculate an average pack size. While they continued to count the actual number of wolves they spotted during surveys, wildlife managers also began using a new technique to estimate the statewide wolf population that was better suited to larger and more dispersed populations. They applied the average pack size in areas known to have packs, but where individual wolves were not necessarily seen and counted by a person.

As Idaho’s wolf population continued to grow, however, it became increasingly difficult to monitor the population. After wolves were removed from the endangered species list, Idaho took full management of them and hunters and trappers began harvesting wolves, it made keeping radio collars on wolves more difficult and costly.

“That monitoring used to cost about $750,000 per year, a large portion of which came from federal funding,” said Toby Boudreau, Fish and Game’s Wildlife Bureau Chief. “That funding tapered off from the time wolves were delisted in 2011 until it was eliminated in 2016.”

Idaho’s wildlife managers knew they would need to monitor wolf populations using a more cost-effective and efficient model than one based on radio collars, and the focus of their monitoring shifted to “occupancy” — or estimating the number of wolf packs in the state, rather than establishing a total wolf population estimate.

A WASHINGTON WOLF CAUGHT ON A TRAIL CAMERA. (WDFW)

Expanding the use of game cameras

Beginning in 2016, researchers started using a grid of about 200 game cameras to detect whether or not wolf packs were present in predetermined areas scattered across the Idaho, which biologists call “occupancy cells.”

By determining what percentage of Idaho is occupied by wolf packs and monitoring changes over time, while also monitoring wolves’ impact on elk and deer populations, wildlife managers observed large-scale trends in the statewide wolf population, and managed wolves based on population trends, i.e. whether the overall population was stable, growing or shrinking.

“If the wolf population contracts, occupancies should contract, in the same way that they increase,” Hurley said. “You can also estimate the number of packs. That is what we can do with patch occupancy, because your occupancy cells are the size of a whole pack territory.”

Biologists also used DNA analysis from scat surveys and harvested wolves, allowing them to estimate pack counts, reproduction, and the number of wolves in small areas during the summer months. Using these methods alone, however, it was difficult to get an overall, statewide wolf population estimate.

That situation changed recently after researchers developed population-estimate techniques by using game cameras, similar to how biologists are already using cameras to count and monitor elk and deer populations in Idaho.

For the new method to work, wildlife managers needed to dramatically increase the number of cameras in the field devoted to wolf monitoring, which is why Fish and Game staff deployed hundreds of additional cameras this summer.

“What we’ve done is split these occupancy cells up again, and added additional cameras within them,” Hurley said. “That will give us enough cameras to generate an abundance estimate, which we can’t get with just the occupancy cameras.”

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Northwest States, Tribes Apply To Feds For OK To Kill More Columbia Sea Lions

THE FOLLOWING IS A PRESS RELEASE FROM THE WASHINGTON DEPARTMENT OF FISH AND WILDLIFE

The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW), along with a consortium of state and tribal partners, today submitted an expanded application to lethally remove California and Steller sea lions preying on threatened and endangered salmon and steelhead runs in the Columbia River and its tributaries.

SEA LIONS GATHER INSIDE THE MOUTH OF THE COWEEMAN RIVER AT KELSO, MOST LIKELY FOLLOWING THE 2016 RUN OF ESA-LISTED EULACHON, OR SMELT, UP THE COLUMBIA RIVER. (SKYLAR MASTERS)

California sea lions — and increasingly, Steller sea lions — have been observed in growing numbers in the Columbia River basin, especially in the last decade. These sea lions prey heavily on salmon and steelhead runs listed under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), including thousands of fish at Bonneville Dam each year.

The impacts come at a time when many Chinook salmon runs are already at historic lows.

The recovery of sea lions since the passage of the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) in 1972 is a success story, said Kessina Lee, Region 5 director with WDFW. But that recovery has also brought challenges.

“The vast majority of these animals remain in coastal and offshore waters, but several hundred have established themselves in upriver locations,” Lee said. “Where salmon and steelhead numbers are low, any unmanaged increase in predation can cause serious problems.”

Predator management is a key part of a multi-faceted effort to restore salmon and steelhead populations in the Pacific Northwest.

“For decades, we’ve made strides in habitat restoration, hydropower policy, hatchery production, and fishery management, and we continue to work with our partners to further those initiatives,” Lee said. “Predator management remains an essential part of the equation.”

The application submitted to the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) by WDFW and its partners is the first since Congress passed an amendment to the MMPA in December 2018. That amendment, spearheaded by the Pacific Northwest congressional delegation, passed with strong bipartisan support and offers greater flexibility to wildlife managers when determining if a sea lion should be lethally removed in waters that host ESA-listed runs of salmon or steelhead.

“Based on years of experience working within the bounds of the Marine Mammal Protection Act, the Columbia River fishing tribes contend that predator management is necessary to restore balance to the Columbia River system,” said Ryan Smith, chairman of the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission. “Strong partnerships and collaboration with the states, northwest congressional delegation, federal authorities, and nongovernment organizations resulted in this amendment, which applies robust tools to manage sea lions in the lower Columbia River and recognizes tribal sovereignty in that management.”

WDFW and its partners have taken steps to deter California sea lions in the Columbia River basin for more than a decade, but non-lethal measures have proven largely ineffective, driving animals away for only short periods. These hazing measures appear similarly ineffective against Steller sea lions. Non-lethal measures continue to be used as a short-term deterrent when appropriate.

Wildlife managers have conducted lethal removal operations of California sea lions in the Columbia River basin since 2008, when NMFS first issued a letter of authorization under section 120 of the MMPA. From 2008-2019, wildlife managers removed a total of 219 California sea lions that met the federal criteria for removal below Bonneville Dam.

Steller sea lions have not previously been subject to lethal removal.

“Prior to this legislation, wildlife managers were severely limited in their ability to effectively manage sea lions in these areas,” Lee said. “Additional action is required to protect these troubled fish stocks before they are completely eliminated. This is an unfortunate, but necessary step in the salmon recovery process.”

If approved, WDFW expects to begin humanely removing animals under the terms of the expanded application beginning in 2020. The application is subject to a public comment period and review by NMFS. Members of the public can review the application at https://wdfw.wa.gov/sites/default/files/2019-06/MMPA-120f-application.pdf.

Other entities submitting the application with WDFW include the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, the Idaho Department of Fish and Game, the Nez Perce Tribe, the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation (CTUIR), the Confederated Tribes of the Warm Springs Reservation of Oregon (CTWSR), The Confederated Tribes and Bands of the Yakama Nation, and the 3.6.D Committee, which includes ODFW, CTUIR, CTWSR, the Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde Community, and the Confederated Tribes of the Siletz Indians of Oregon.

Bummed By Northwest Fish Runs? So Is This Angler, But He’s Also Exploring New Ops

By Rick Itami

Like many other sport anglers in the Inland Northwest, I am deeply saddened about the drastically diminished runs of salmon and steelhead in our favorite rivers and streams.

For me, 2018 was the worst year in terms of fish landed since I retired in 2003. Fishing was so bad that I cut the number of days on the water by over 50 percent.

Looking forward, the future is not bright. With a new “blob” of warm water developing in the Pacific and the current El Nino, we might be looking at several more years of low run counts.

SPOKANE-BASED ANGLER-AUTHOR RICK ITAMI WITH HIS FIRST-EVER SNOOK TAKEN OUT OF FLORIDA BAY. (RICK ITAMI)

There are just too many negative factors facing our beloved salmonids these days, including pinniped predation, terns and mergansers feasting on outmigrating smolts, continued loss of habitat to human development and other causes.

Then you have our politicians trying to do the right thing, but only succeeding in getting a few days of good press with little real benefit to salmon and steelhead.

And lately, to hear that the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife Commission has voted to allow nontribal gillnetting back into the Lower Columbia in the face of low run predictions for 2019, I am getting a sick feeling in my stomach.

I turned 73 years old in April 5 and my window of opportunity for my favorite pastime is narrowing faster with each passing year. And then it hit me: will I die before salmon and steelhead numbers recover to what they were just five to 10 years ago?

The truth is the answer to that question could easily be “yes.”

ITAMI IS MUCH MORE AT HOME IN HIS NATIVE IDAHO, WHERE HE CAUGHT THIS NICE STRINGER OF HATCHERY STEELHEAD, BUT LOW RUNS ARE LEADING HIM TO LOOK FOR OTHER ANGLING OPPORTUNITIES ACROSS THE COUNTRY. (RICK ITAMI)

I STARTED FISHING WITH MY OLDER BROTHER WHEN I was 5 years old. We had a creek fed by natural artesian wells that ran through the middle of our little farm just west of Nampa, Idaho, and the Idaho Department of Fish and Game planted rainbow trout in it every year. We spent many happy hours catching 6-8 inch trout in our creek and cooling off in our swimming hole in the heat of summer.

Since then, I have graduated to fishing all over the Northwest, mostly for salmon and steelhead. And in retirement, I was blessed to be able to figure things out to the point that I would catch 50 to 150 steelhead a year and a few dozen Chinook salmon. But that’s all in the past now.

Rather than sitting in my easy chair feeling sorry for myself and other salmon and steelhead fishermen in the Inland Northwest, I have decided to give fishing a rest in my favorite local salmon and steelhead venues and pursue different fish species elsewhere.

Over the years, I have developed a bucket list of fish species that I would like to catch that would require me to travel well outside of the Northwest.

I read some books and watched fishing shows about fishing the coast of the Gulf of Mexico. This got me excited about trying to catch some of the many species available on the Gulf Coast, including redfish, speckled sea trout, tarpon, bonefish, permit, pompano and other species.

During the past two years I have fished almost the whole semi-circle of the Gulf Coast, including the Lower Laguna Madre and Port Aransas in Texas, Barrataria and Venice in Louisiana, Tampa Bay and the Florida Keys. I’ve booked my wife and I a guide out of Grand Isles, Louisiana for another trip to the bayou this fall.

So far I have landed several species of fish I had never caught before such as redfish, speckled sea trout, snook, black drum, sheepshead, mangrove snapper, jack crevalle, ladyfish, Spanish mackerel and sail catfish.

ITAMI ESCAPED COLD INLAND NORTHWEST WEATHER TO WADE-FISH FOR A DIFFERENT KIND OF TROUT WAY DOWN TEXAS WAY, THE SPECKLED TROUT OF LAGUNA MADRE. HERE HE REELS IN HIS FIRST EVER. (RICK ITAMI)

I caught all of these species inshore fishing various flats with local guides. I have come to love flats fishing. My wife feels safe fishing water that rarely gets over 3 feet deep.

While most of our trips were successful, our one excursion to fish for tarpon on the northern pass of Anna Maria Island near Tampa Bay was a bust. On the mid-May 2018 day we landed in Tampa, a tropical depression had formed over the entire state of Florida. We had to sit out torrential rains most of the week.

The one day we got out to fish, the storm had moved the 10,000 tarpon that were in the pass the previous week somewhere out into the vast Gulf of Mexico. We got skunked.

My wife and I went after bonefish on some flats on the east side of the Florida Keys this past February. Strong winds and passing clouds made it difficult to spot the fish in the 1- 3-foot-deep water.

The guide did his job by poling his skiff within range of seven or eight groups of bonefish. Unfortunately, his clients were too slow and inaccurate with the casts in the windy conditions to get the baits within biting range.

But it was a thrill to see bonefish for the first time — some approaching 9 pounds! I didn’t even know they got that big and I will definitely give fishing for them another try.

So far my favorite Gulf fish to catch is the big bull redfish because they get as big and fight as hard as our beloved Chinook salmon of the Northwest.

FOLLOWING 2017’S BAD RUNS, ITAMI HEADED FOR CAJUN COUNTRY — LOUISIANA’S BAYOU — AND BOOKED SOME FISHING TIME WITH GRIFFIN FISHING CHARTERS. (RICK ITAMI)

IF YOU GET THE URGE TO FISH THE GULF COAST like me, I should let you know some of the things I learned.

First of all, no matter where I went to fish it off Texas, Louisiana or Florida I found that the vastness of the flats makes it almost impossible for DIY trips. In most areas, you can find places to rent boats or kayaks, but I wouldn’t recommend it if you’re unfamiliar with the area.

The exception to that would be Port Aransas, where some friends from Colorado and I caught some nice speckled sea trout while DIY kayaking.

The guides know the areas well and have their local contacts to let them know where the fish are. On most trips, the guides will travel anywhere from 5 to 30 miles from the launch area to get to where the bite is.

Most of the flats around the Gulf coast have hundreds of small cane or mangrove islands — all of which look alike. Even after going out with guides, I know I could never go out on my own and find the spots they took us to. Worse yet, I would undoubtedly have gotten lost in the vastness of the flats.

So finding a good guide is essential. I search the internet for guides with 5-star ratings from trip advisor. I also take note of guides that are highlighted on fishing shows on TV.

However, the latter didn’t work out quite as well as I would have liked in one case. Having seen a guide out of Venice on a popular fishing show, I booked a trip with him for me and my Air Force buddy from Tampa and his son.

The guide told me over the phone that we could stay at his “lodge” for free. That should have raised red flags, but I didn’t delve any further into the state of the accommodations. We drove from the New Orleans airport to Venice and arrived just before dark. We used our GPS to locate the so-called lodge, which was down a dirt road just off the main highway.

At first we didn’t believe the GPS because it landed us at a ramshackle two-story unpainted building that looked like it had been abandoned for years. We contacted the guide and he assured us we were at the right place and that he needed to do a little “cleaning up” before we settled in.

IT’S NOT ALL DOOM AND GLOOM IN THE NORTHWEST — THE OPENING OF STURGEON RETENTION ON LAKE ROOSEVELT NEAR THE LILAC CITY AFFORDED ITAMI, LEFT, A CHANCE TO EXPERIENCE A NEW CLOSE-TO-HOME FISHERY. (FISHING PHOTO CONTEST)

He arrived a few minutes later and let us in. He showed us to a small room with two bunk beds that were unmade and with bedding and other things scattered everywhere. My buddy’s son found mouse droppings on his bed. The guide showed us how to use a vise grips to turn the shower on and off. Unfortunately, it was too late to try to find other accommodations. We were stuck.

The good thing was that fishing was good and we caught a lot of nice bull redfish. But beware of anything that sounds too good to be true.

One of the differences in Gulf Coast guides as opposed to Northwest fishing guides is that they all call themselves “Captain.” Most of them prefer to be addressed as Captain, followed by their first name, e.g., “Captain John”. But they don’t seem to mind us Yankees not observing that custom.

Weather is an important factor in the success of fishing the Gulf coast. Hurricanes, tropical depressions and cold fronts are common in this area of the U. S. So it’s often a crap shoot when you book a guide far in advance of your trip.

Most guides require a deposit when you book a trip, but will return it if weather conditions don’t permit a trip … or allow you to reschedule a trip at a later date. Nowadays, you can look at the weather predictions up to 10 days in advance so you can cancel airline, lodging and charter reservations if things look bad.

If you want to target a specific species, you should let your guide know ahead of time. Oftentimes, the guides will go to different areas of the flats depending on which species you want to pursue. For example, in the Louisiana Bayou country, oftentimes redfish are found in different areas than speckled sea trout.

When my wife and I fished the Florida Keys, the guide took us over 20 miles into Florida Bay where we caught a variety of fish including snook, speckled trout, mangrove snapper, jack crevalle, and other species. The next day, we asked him to target bonefish only, so he took us on the Atlantic side of the Keys where he poled us into several groups of bones, as mentioned above.

ITAMI AND HIS GUIDES POSE WITH A NICE GULF COAST CATCH. (RICK ITAMI)

It’s also important to let your guide know ahead of time if you want to catch bull redfish (over 26 inches) as opposed to slot reds (20 to 26 inches). They are usually found in different areas of the estuaries.

I’m not much into to catching sharks or stingrays, but they are often plentiful in the flats and put up a great fight if you want to give that a try.

Speaking of stingrays, I once went out with a guide in the Lower Laguna Madre on the south Texas coast who wade-fished exclusively. I love this type of fishing, but you have to shuffle your feet along the bottom so as not to step on a stingray, which can launch its tail spike into your leg in an instant. This can be extremely painful and lead to horrible infections. A lot of wade fishermen wear special leggings to protect them from stingray strikes.

Finally, while my preference is inshore flats fishing, in most areas of the Gulf Coast you can also choose to fish offshore in the deeper waters of the Gulf of Mexico. Here you have the opportunity to catch other species like yellowfin and blackfin tuna, cobia, king mackerel, red snapper, barracuda and other species.

But most charters take out several people at a time much farther from the launch site than inshore fishing and they are usually a lot more expensive. I never keep any of my catch and get seasick at times, so I will probably continue inshore fishing only with smaller groups of relatives and friends.

ITAMI SHOWS OFF A NICE BULL RED CAUGHT IN THE MISSISSIPPI RIVER DELTA OUT OF VENICE, LOUISIANA. “IT FOUGHT LIKE A CHINOOK SALMON,” HE REPORTS. (RICK ITAMI)

WHILE GIVING MOST OF MY INLAND NORTHWEST FISHING a breather until hopefully the runs of fish return in more respectable numbers, I will not totally abandon it.

Having fished for over 60 years, I have developed a lot of friendships with guides, lodging owners, and cooks and wait staff at great small eateries. So I will fish some of my favorite haunts if for no other reason than to give these wonderful people some business.

And as all avid fishermen know, it’s great just to get out into the stream and take in the beauty of Mother Nature.