Anglers on the Deschutes River

Anglers learn to fish on the Deschutes River in 2017. 

In response to extremely low returns to date of Columbia Basin upriver summer steelhead, Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW) has adopted additional emergency rules to increase protections for wild summer steelhead in certain Oregon Columbia River tributaries, including the Deschutes and John Day rivers.

Passage counts of summer steelhead at Bonneville Dam from July 1 through Aug. 26 are the lowest since counts began in 1938. This continues a pattern of several years of low returns for many populations, and comes during a period when flows throughout the basin are generally low because of drought. Within this run are ESA-listed wild summer steelhead destined for the Upper Columbia and Snake rivers, as well as several Mid-Columbia tributaries.

On Aug. 16 and 23, fisheries scientists from the U.S. v Oregon Technical Advisory Committee (TAC) downgraded the forecast for A-index summer steelhead from an already low preseason estimate of 89,200 to an in-season estimate of 35,000.

“We’re in uncharted territory here,” said Shaun Clements, ODFW deputy administrator for Fish Division. “The combination of a historically low run on top of multiple years of low runs, and the very poor environmental conditions that seem likely to continue based on the most recent drought forecast, mean this is a regional problem.

“We know these actions are going to negatively affect anglers this year and we don’t take that lightly,” Clements continued. “But they are unfortunately necessary at this time to give the fish the best chance to rebound and ensure the populations can support fisheries in future years.”

The rules will close steelhead fishing in the lower Umatilla and in additional areas of the Deschutes and John Day rivers beginning Sept. 1. They are in addition to existing steelhead closures in portions of the lower Deschutes and John Day rivers.

These changes come on top of measures already taken in mainstem Columbia River fisheries to protect summer steelhead during their migration to the tributaries. Because of the low pre-season forecasts for summer steelhead, fishing seasons in 2021 were crafted with additional measures to protect steelhead. These included extensive closures to retention of steelhead in mainstem angling areas (including some tributary river mouths), and implementation of no-angling sanctuaries in Oregon tributary mouths that serve as cold-water refuges for migrating steelhead.

The actions are part of a multi-state response and put protections in place in Mid-Columbia Oregon tributaries that are expected to have low to very low returns.

Mark Metzdorff, a Deschutes River Steward for Native Fish Society said, in a press release, “As a Deschutes River Steward, I wholeheartedly agree this closure is necessary. Record low numbers mean every wild fish that can spawn is precious, and even the low incidental mortality that happens with catch-and-release fishing is unacceptable in these conditions. As one whose yearly highlight is fishing for summer run steelhead on west coast streams, it doesn’t come easily to make this choice, but it’s the right one. Washington and Idaho should get on board.”

The angling closures went into effect Sept. 1.

“Most of these closures protect Steelhead migrating further up the Columbia,” said Liz Perkin, Northern Oregon coordinator for Native Fish Society. “We would like to see more protections put in place specifically for Deschutes Steelhead.” There were more than 7,000 wild Steelhead migrating above Sherars Falls in 2010-2011. Last year, there were only 1,935. This year is expected to be even worse. The Mid-Columbia Steelhead Recovery Plan indicates that a minimum population of 2,500 Steelhead returning to the Deschutes are needed to prevent extinction in the basin.

Jeff Hickman, a Deschutes fishing guide and Native Fish Society River Steward volunteer, preemptively canceled his trips on the Deschutes in August in response to the poor Steelhead returns, advocating for an official closure to preserve returning fish.