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IDFG Radio-collaring Mule Deer Bucks For Survival Study


Fish and Game researchers want to learn more about mule deer buck survival during hunting seasons, including how the season structure, and hunter access and habitat types affect buck survival. Biologists are using specially designed GPS collars and ear tags to help answer those questions, and collars are being placed on mule deer during winter that will remain on bucks through the upcoming hunting season.


Researchers hope that understanding buck survival will help biologists better manage deer hunting and avoid over-harvesting bucks, as well as meeting hunters’ desires for the age class of bucks and types of hunting seasons.

“Most mule deer hunters would like to see bigger bucks, more bucks, and would also like to go hunting every year,” said biologist Paul Atwood, who is leading the study. “Those things are pretty hard to juggle all at once. Wildlife managers have been creative in how they structured seasons to try and reach those goals, but there are many confounding factors that make it hard to decide what affect you will have if you change a season. We are hoping to address some of those.”

How much the timing and length of a hunting season affects buck survival is one question they would like to answer, but there are more. Such as, what are the effects of controlled hunts vs. general hunts, antler point restrictions, etc. on survival? What about road densities and motorized access into a hunting area, or the amount of conifer cover, or steepness of the terrain?

Incorporating adult buck collaring into traditional doe and fawn collaring

Fish and Game staff and volunteers trap and collar mule deer does and fawns each winter to monitor survival, and they’re adding a sample of mature bucks. They will measure the survival of mule deer bucks in various hunting units, which were selected based on varying topography, conifer cover, road densities, and hunting season structures.

“We want units that compare and contrast really nicely based on those characteristics,” Atwood said. “For example, we want some units with general season opportunity and pretty open terrain and lots of motorized access. We also want other units that are controlled hunt only, but similar in terms of terrain and accessibility.”

Currently, bucks are collared in units 22, 32, 39, 40 and 41. Other units will be added on a rotating basis in the upcoming years and collars will be deployed in 16 units, which will cover a wide geographic swath of mule deer country.

“Most of our hunters are concerned with how many bucks we have and the quality of those that are out there,” Atwood said. “There are lots of different opinions on how good or bad the mule deer hunting is in a given unit, and almost as many suggestions on how to make it better. This study will allow us to evaluate that scientifically, and provide us with the best data we’ve ever had on the survival rate for adult bucks.”

Overcoming challenges to monitoring adult bucks

For decades, Fish and Game biologists have used radio collars to monitor survival of mule deer fawns (including males) and does, and in recent years, upgraded many to GPS-based collars. But adult bucks pose unique challenges.

Biologists have used collars on adult bucks in previous studies, but the durations have typically been short. In 2019, Fish and Game researchers tested solar powered GPS ear tags, but found they were not suitable to their study.

Part of the challenge of collars is dealing with a buck’s neck, particularly during the fall rut, when the circumference of an adult buck’s neck can increase up to 50 percent for several weeks before shrinking back to normal.

Think about a wrist being like a buck’s neck, and the wrist of a person wearing wristwatch grows 50 percent without adjusting the band. That’s the challenge biologists face when fitting collars on adult bucks and keeping them there without causing harm to the deer.

Taking a longer look at survival

Researchers are also re-engineering collars on male fawns so they will stay on the animals six months longer. Traditionally, those collars were designed to fall off when the young buck reached about a year old so they wouldn’t become too tight as the buck grew. Biologists knew if a fawn survived its first winter, but when collars fell off during spring or summer, the fate of those young bucks after their first hunting season usually remained a mystery.

More time with a collar on will allow researchers to get a better understanding of how many young bucks survive their  first hunting season as yearlings, a group that often accounts for a large percentage of the mule deer harvest.

“Fawn winter survival rates vary quite a bit based on the weather and where they are located, but once they get to be a year and a half, it is about 85 to 90 percent survival throughout the year (unless harvested),” Atwood said.

Because collars placed on buck fawns are still expected to eventually fall off, researchers are also attaching special ear tags on the deer. The tags are intended to remain on the animal for the rest of its life, and researchers will rely on hunters to report the ear tags if they harvest a buck with one, and in exchange, hunters will be eligible for a reward.

“Most bucks, after they reach that age, they are most likely going to be harvested. At that point, a hunter — even three or four years later — can report that ear tag. Every male fawn we handle now, we will have a much better chance of figuring out what ultimately happens to them.”

Steelheading To Reopen Around Lewiston


Meeting by conference call on Wednesday, Dec. 18, the Idaho Fish and Game Commission reopened steelhead fishing in the Clearwater River and lower Snake River downstream of Couse Creek Boat Ramp, beginning on Jan. 1. Daily bag limit in those sections is limited to one adipose-clipped steelhead per day, none over 28 inches in length.


Anglers should note that the North Fork Clearwater River will be closed to steelhead fishing during the 2020 spring season. The South Fork of the Clearwater River will also reopen on Jan. 1, and all other season dates remain the same as what is printed 2019-21 Idaho Fishing Seasons and Rules brochure.

To see a summary of modifications that have been made to the 2019-21 printed steelhead seasons and rules, specific to the 2020 spring season, visit Idaho Fish and Game’s Steelhead Seasons and Rules Page. You can see the updated steelhead seasons and rules here.

The commission had previously closed steelhead fishing entirely on the Clearwater River in September, as well as the Snake River below Couse Creek. The closure came amid concerns that returns of hatchery steelhead would not be sufficient to meet broodstock needs for the Clearwater hatcheries.

Fisheries managers were waiting to see if enough steelhead would return to replenish hatcheries before proposing to the commission to resume steelhead fishing for Clearwater and lower Snake rivers.

After an additional month of trapping steelhead for the Clearwater River hatchery programs, fisheries managers were confident there are enough steelhead for hatcheries and to provide steelhead fishing opportunities. Fisheries managers also plan to continue enlisting anglers to help provide steelhead broodstock in the South Fork fo the Clearwater in the spring.

IDFG Reports Some Good News On Steelhead Run


On Nov. 15, the Idaho Fish and Game Commission extended the current bag limits for steelhead fishing (one fish per day, three in possession) on portions of the Snake, Salmon and Little Salmon rivers for the 2020 spring steelhead season, which begins January 1.

According to Jim Fredericks, Fisheries Bureau Chief for Idaho Fish and Game, the hatchery steelhead return in the Snake and Salmon rivers is high enough to continue allowing anglers limited harvest opportunities.


Biologists are already trapping adult steelhead on the Snake River at Hells Canyon Dam and will continue to do so into the spring, but Fish and Game is well on its way to meeting broodstock goals, Fredericks said.

Meanwhile, trapping at the Pahsimeroi and Sawtooth hatcheries does not begin until spring, but biologists are confident that continuing the one fish per day limit on the Salmon River through the spring will allow them to meet their broodstock needs.

“All of that is good news,” Fredericks said.

There was also some good news for Clearwater River steelhead. As a result of coordinated management actions with tribal and state partners, and additional emergency measures in Idaho, it now appears that returns will be sufficient to meet broodstock targets for Clearwater River hatcheries.

The commission closed steelhead fishing entirely on the Clearwater River in September, as well as the Snake River below Couse Creek. The closure came amid concerns that returns would not be sufficient to meet broodstock needs for the Clearwater hatcheries due to low returns of larger B-run steelhead, which typically spend two years in the ocean before returning to Idaho to spawn.

The low forecast prompted coordinated management between other state and tribal partners in the Columbia and Snake river basins in an effort to reduce impacts to hatchery steelhead returning to the Clearwater Basin. As a result, a higher-than-average percentage of adult steelhead survived the journey from Bonneville Dam on the Columbia River to Lower Granite Dam, which is about 25 miles downstream from Lewiston, increasing the projection of steelhead returning to the Clearwater.

To further bolster returns to the Clearwater River basin, managers initiated emergency broodstock trapping efforts at Dworshak National Fish Hatchery and at Lower Granite Dam. In addition to taking a higher percentage of fish in the fall at Dworshak Hatchery than are normally collected, managers are collecting fish from the trap at Lower Granite Dam and taking them directly to the Dworshak Fish Hatchery.

Thanks to the coordinated management and increased trapping efforts, between 700 and 800 of the 1,000 steelhead needed for broodstock at the Dworshak hatchery have already been trapped. An additional 350 adults need to be collected from the South Fork of the Clearwater, which will likely occur in the spring.

“We are fairly confident now that we’ll be able to achieve our Clearwater broodstock needs, and we don’t expect that we’re going to need to rely on the smaller 1-ocean fish, those smaller than 28 inches, because of the conversion of those larger, B-run fish,” Fredericks said.

Fish and Game is projecting that there could be about 1,000 of the smaller A-run steelhead in the Clearwater River system that will be in excess of broodstock needs, and Fish and Game managers will continue to coordinate with partners, including the Nez Perce Tribe and the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, to evaluate a potential fishing season on the Clearwater River in early 2020. Anglers can expect more information by late December.

“We’re confident we’ll be able to provide some catch-and-release opportunity at a minimum, and possibly some level of harvest,” Fredericks said. “But we do need to continue to monitor broodstock collection and make sure we’re going to get there, and coordinate with our management partners.”

IDFG Spotlights Overlooked Autumn Stream Option: Whitefish


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.


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.


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.

It’s Public Comment Season In The P.N.W.: Sea Lions, Wolves, Grizzlies

Editor’s note: Since this blog was posted Monday, Oct. 28, WDFW has announced that the public scoping period for future wolf management planning will extend through 5 p.m. Nov. 15.

As one public comment period closed last week, two others important to Northwest sportsmen will end soon as well.

Tuesday, Oct. 29 is when commenting wraps up on a proposal by the three Northwest states and several tribes to remove California and Steller sea lions in an expanded part of the Lower Columbia watershed, while this Friday afternoon is when the scoping period for postrecovery wolf management planning ends in Washington.


Last Thursday saw the second comment period on plans to recover grizzly bears in the North Cascades wrap up following several well-attended meetings in the region.

Following passage of the Endangered Salmon Predation Prevention Act by Congress last winter, IDFG, ODFW, WDFW and the Nez Perce Tribe, Yakama Nation and other tribal partners in the Columbia Basin put in for a permit that would allow removals of sea lions in tributaries with listed salmon and steelhead runs, as well as in the Columbia from river mile 112, around Washougal, up to McNary Dam.

Currently, sea lions are only being taken out in the mainstem at Bonneville.

It’s not a ultimate cure-all for all the woes Chinook, coho, summer-runs and other stocks face — many other species chew on them and fish habitat has been radically altered — but already the ability to remove the marine mammals is showing results at Willamette Falls.

According to a Bill Monroe article in The Oregonian late last week, sea lion predation of winter steelhead and spring Chinook there has dropped by as much as 75 and 55 percent, respectively, since Oregon received a federal permit.

ODFW took out 33 last winter and spring, and that has greatly increased the odds that the ESA-listed steelhead stock will not go extinct, “probably to less than 10 percent,” according to the agency’s Dr. Shaun Clement, Monroe reported.


To comment on the expanded program in the Columbia, go here by tomorrow.

As for Washington wolf management, 5 p.m. Nov. 1 is the deadline to register your thoughts as WDFW looks towards the next phase of the species’ recovery in the state.

There are two options, a scoping questionaire that asks for your age, sex, county of residence, whether you live in a rural, suburban or urban area, whether you identify as a hunter, livestock producer, outdoor recreationist or environmentalist, and a list to check off the topics most important to you in terms of wolf management.

That takes less than two minutes, but another option allows for more submitting more expansive thoughts.


When the Fish and Wildlife Commission met a week and a half ago, wolf managers updated them on how the scoping process was going through Oct. 17, and wolf hunting and wolf-livestock conflicts were the two most important topics among respondents, followed by wolf conservation and monitoring.

Translocation — moving nonproblem wolves from one part of the state to others — was the least important.

Rural residents and outdoor recreationists have been among those participating in the survey in the highest numbers.

Don’t believe your voice counts in public comment?

With WDFW proposing a blanket elimination of daily and size limits on bass, walleye and channel catfish in 146 lakes across Washington (most don’t have the latter two species, but the first are widespread), testimony heard by the Fish and Wildlife Commission at their October meeting had the citizen panel pushing back and asking for a more refined proposal from fishery managers as the state agency tries to follow a legislative directive to provide more forage fish for orcas.

Field Dressing Big Game Goes VR In New Idaho Simulator For New Hunters


Thanks to a partnership between Idaho of Fish and Game and the Boise State College of Innovation and Design, learning to field dress a big game animal just got a lot easier.

Over the past year, Brennon Leman and Dakota Kimble, who are part of Boise State’s Games, Interactive Media, and Mobile Program have been working working with Idaho Fish and Game staff to develop a virtual reality simulation to teach new hunters how to field dress big game. Leman and Kimble recently put the finishing touches on the simulation, which will soon be piloted in a handful of Idaho hunter education classes.


For Idaho Fish and Game officials, the hope is that virtual reality technology will help  new hunters understand the basics of field dressing animals, which is usually taught through text books or videos.

“We talked to hunter education instructors and new hunters to identify some of the biggest barriers to entry for big game hunting, and we found that field dressing was one of them,” said Ian Malepeai, Idaho Fish and Game’s Marketing Program Manager.

While Idaho hunter education courses cover field dressing, the tools available for hands-on instruction are limited, according to Brenda Beckley, Fish and Game hunter and angler recruitment manager.

“We don’t currently have a demonstration on how to properly field dress a deer or elk. VR could change that, and bridge the gap from knowing how to field dress an animal and actually doing it,” Beckley said.

VR simulation as an instructional tool

While much of the attention on VR is tied to the world of video games and entertainment, roughly two-thirds of the future market for virtual and augmented technology is likely to be in industry simulation, according to Anthony Ellerston, director of the Games, Interactive Media and Mobile program at Boise State.

Virtual reality is already being used for instruction and training in professional sports, medicine, customer service, insurance and more. It’s biggest advantage as a training tool is its ability to submerge the user into real-life experiences and hone certain skills under controlled conditions, leading to better retention of information when it comes time to apply it in a real-world setting.

“It’s the same for hunter education, and learning how to field dress an elk,” Ellerston said. “You can watch a video on YouTube, and you can get a sense of how it’s done. But what we give you with this simulation is the muscle memory. By making you physically go through the process, it’s much more likely that you will remember it and perform it correctly.”


Virtual reality represents the next frontier in both gaming and instruction, and will be a medium that the next generation of hunters grow up with, said Malepeai.

“VR is developing rapidly and becoming cheaper and more ubiquitous,” Malepeai added. “For Fish and Game, new, innovative tools like this are going to be instrumental in giving younger generations of hunters the confidence and tools to strike out on their own.”

About the simulation

“For this to be used in our hunter education classes, it was important that the simulation take the user through every step of the process, from the time that the animal is reduced into a hunter’s possession until they have finished field dressing the animal,” Beckley said.

When students put on the VR headset and take the two controllers into their hands, they are transported to the Idaho backcountry, with a freshly downed elk on the ground in front of them. Before they can “grab” a knife using the buttons on the controllers and begin field dressing the animal, students begin by attaching a tag to the antlers of the elk.

After that, the field dressing begins with skinning the animal, removing one of the rear hindquarters, followed by the front quarter, neck meat, backstrap, and tenderloin. Students have to manipulate the legs and hide with their free hand and move their body around the animal as they work, mimicking the real-world mechanics of field dressing an animal.

Illuminated dots guide the location of their cuts, and users can read from in-game written instructions if they need additional help.


Where you can find it

While there are a variety of VR platforms, Fish and Game’s field dressing simulation is currently only playable on Oculus virtual reality systems, including the Rift and Quest consoles.

Fish and Game plans to pilot the VR field dressing simulation in instructor-led hunter education classes in its Nampa  and Idaho Falls regional offices within the next six months.

The simulation will also be available outside of Idaho, both to hunter education programs in other states and to the general public. The simulation was designed to be compatible with any hunter education program in the nation, and about a dozen other state fish and wildlife agencies have already expressed interest in incorporating the simulation into their curriculum.

For anyone with an Oculus VR headset at home who is interested in trying it out, the simulation can be downloaded at https://idfg.idaho.gov/Zka

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.


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.


“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


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.


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.”

Columbia King Managers Decide Against 1-day Lower River Opener

Columbia fall Chinook managers today reduced the bag limit in the Hanford Reach to one but also passed on a lower river reopener in favor of giving gorge pools anglers continued access to this year’s run.

WDFW and ODFW staffers had recommended opening the big river from Buoy 10 to Bonneville this Saturday for fall kings after the URB component forecast was upgraded slightly, from 159,200 to 167,200.


That would have coincided with sturgeon retention (above Wauna) and was modeled to yield a catch of 950 kings.

It would also have taken upriver bright, or URB, catch-plus-release mortalities to 99 percent of what managers are allowing this season.

(The fishery was closed earlier this month three days early after exceeding the initial URB allocation for that runsize and stretch of water.)

But during a midafternoon conference call there was only mixed support for the one-day opener, with state sportfishing advisors in favor and the general public not.

Some didn’t have any appetite for all the days anglers would subsequently lose on the Columbia between Bonneville and Highway 395 in Tri-Cities, which would be forced to close much earlier than scheduled to provide the room for the lower reopener.

Dan Grogan of Fisherman’s Marine called that “absolutely ludicrous,” while others talked to issues of fairness and upriver anglers taking it in the shorts for lower fishermen’s opportunities in the past.

It would also cut into apparently better-than-is-being-let-on fishing in the pools, if images from Fish Camp this week and one advisor’s report are any indication.

The call also confirmed continuing concerns on two fronts: tule Chinook broodstock, and steelhead.

WDFW’s Bill Tweit warned that Drano Lake king catches were being watched very closely and it wasn’t clear how long the fishery would stay open.

Managers are worried about the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Little White Salmon and Spring Creek Hatcheries collecting enough adult tules for spawning. While the latter facility is seeing good numbers, a lot are also jacks.

As for steelhead, the run has again been downgraded, the fourth time in the past few weeks, now to 69,200, with just 2,500 B-runs expected.

Idaho’s Fish and Game Commission is meeting Friday and could shut down all fishing for steelhead on the Clearwater and much of the shared Snake, and Washington will likely follow suit, Tweit indicated.

WDFW and ODFW were also advised they needed to put out a statement directing anglers to not even catch-and-release steelhead in areas where they’ve been closed to retention due to the low return.

As for Hanford Reach URBs, with only 22,121 wild kings expected to spawn in the free-flowing section of the Columbia — well below the escapement goal of 31,100 — the daily limit will drop from two to one starting Friday, Sept. 20, WDFW announced this morning.

Even though the Reach and the Columbia from McNary downstream are managed under two different plans, it might not have looked very good to have allowed downriver fishermen to intercept 500 or so URBs needed up at Hanford as anglers there see their catch reduced.

In other Columbia Chinook news, yesterday tribal managers OKed six more days of commercial gillnetting in the gorge pools, which will bring the URB catch to 15,375 of the 38,456 available at current run sizes.

2019 Idaho Elk, Mule Deer, Whitetail Hunting Forecast


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.


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.


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.


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)


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.


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)


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.


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.


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 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.


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 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.


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).


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.


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 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.


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 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.


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 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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