Steelhead are difficult to forecast due to their life history, so the pre-season forecast comes with considerable uncertainty. But the 2023 combined preseason forecast for upriver summer steelhead (those destined for areas upstream of Bonneville Dam including the Snake River Basin) is pointing to another poor return year, marking what would be the 8th consecutive year of low returns.
Last year, ODFW implemented fishery frameworks for Columbia River tributaries (Deschutes, John Day, Umatilla, Walla Walla, Grande Ronde and Imnaha rivers). The frameworks provide greater transparency on what management actions will be taken when steelhead runs are low so anglers, guides and local communities can be more prepared for fishery restrictions.
For 2023, anglers should anticipate summer steelhead fishing restrictions and closures in the mainstem Columbia River and tributaries similar to previous years—including broad area and time closures, one-steelhead bag limits when open, and thermal angling sanctuaries near Oregon tributary mouths upstream of Bonneville Dam. Collectively, these regulations have further reduced the take of ESA-listed wild fish and increased hatchery escapements to help hatcheries collect sufficient broodstock.
Regulations may vary across time and across the basin based on the life cycle, the strength of individual tributary runs and the level of risk to wild upriver summer steelhead. The run of most concern, upriver A/B-Index summer steelhead, do not enter the lower Columbia River until early summer. The recreational fishery in the lower river (downstream of The Dalles Dam) does not begin to handle these fish until July and even then, the majority of catch is still destined for lower river tributaries.
But A/B-Index fish that entered the Columbia River last summer are still present in the mainstem Columbia River upstream of The Dalles Dam through winter and early spring of 2023. Due to poor returns in 2022, the John Day and Walla Walla rivers are currently closed to steelhead fishing.
Steelhead angling and retention remains open on the Deschutes River at this time. Escapement of wild steelhead above Sherars Falls for the 2022-23 run year is expected to exceed 625 fish, the threshold needed to keep fishing open on the Deschutes after June 1. If passage of wild fish over Bonneville does not meet minimum counts from July 1-July 31, steelhead fishing on the Deschutes will close by Aug. 15 (see the framework for full details).
“Impacts from dams, degraded freshwater habitat and predation, and steelhead migration patterns in the ocean that have put them in warmer, less productive waters are all playing a role in the low returns of summer steelhead,” said Shaun Clements, ODFW deputy fish division administrator. “While conservation is our first priority, we recognize the impact closures can have on anglers, guides and communities. We hope the webinar and frameworks can provide greater transparency about management actions and help communities impacted by closures prepare.”