Conservation Corner – Comments on Columbia River Steelhead Return in 2023

Editor’s Note: The FCO is fortunate to have The Conservation Angler Executive Director, David Moskowitz, as a member with his finger constantly on the pulse of  Columbia River Steelhead conservation issues. He sends this year-end summary of the 2023 wild steelhead run for your review. The text below is David’s overall summary.  More detailed data are found on the 2nd and 3rd pages of the report: Columbia River Steelhead Status Report 12_5_23_TCA.


The 2023 return was much better than the original predicted forecast from the state fishery managers. The pre-season forecast for wild summer steelhead passing Bonneville Dam from April 1 thru October 31 was predicted to be fewer than 21,000 wild fish. The actual return of wild or unclipped steelhead was 40,654 steelhead past Bonneville Dam – twice as many as predicted!  If you are going to be wrong, let’s be wrong in the right direction!

While that was only a pre-season forecast, the inaccuracy should set off some alarm bells for the fish agencies.

The lowest preseason forecast – ever – lower than the previous actual lowest return in 2021, seemed dire. Let’s look back before we look forward for silver linings.

In 2021, the pre-season forecast was about 100,000 total steelhead. The actual run totaled about 70,000 hatchery and wild fish.  The final number of wild steelhead returning in 2021 was less than 25,000 fish.

The number of wild steelhead predicted to pass over Bonneville Dam in 2023 was less than 21,000 fish – for the entire Columbia and Snake River Basin – so the actual return of over 40,000 steelhead is truly a blessing.

Considering the steelhead status, and the fishing regulations we have seen enacted over the past few years of low wild steelhead numbers, Oregon has taken a proactive stance:

First, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW) and then the Commission created the Thermal Angling Sanctuaries at the Deschutes in 2018, and then permanent rules at three cold water refugia by 2020.

Second, the Commission held a special meeting in August 2021 to address the unexpected decline in returning steelhead and some rivers were closed to steelhead angling.

Third, in 2022, ODFW developed an outreach program with anglers and developed a series of Fishery Frameworks to provide as much certainty for anglers – and protection for wild steelhead as possible.

For these actions, we are grateful and The Conservation Angler (TCA) believes that Oregon stands tall compared to our neighboring states to the North and East.

Nevertheless, the overall status of wild steelhead still demands an open and careful review of the regulatory scheme in place since 2021.

When TCA examines the impact of the extraordinary regulations put in place in 2021, we see by the reduction in angler effort and steelhead encounters that these regulations made a difference in wild fish reaching their spawning grounds in greater numbers and in better shape.

Derek Fergus’ Strung Out Muddler – David closes the trailer hook to <1/4 ” to reduce hooking injury to gills or mouth

TCA is concerned that the fishery framework in place – reliant on wild steelhead return estimations from the 2022-23 spawning season (still underway) – will result in open seasons at the beginning – at a time when wild fish make up the majority of the early steelhead return.

Something just does not seem right about a plan to allow fisheries that will impact the wild run more than the hatchery component. We urge great caution and we urge the Commission to engage with the public on this issue now and not in June or July.

David Moskowitz