Conservation Corner – Summer Steelhead Blues


This year’s Columbia River summer steelhead forecast looks grim. ODFW predicts “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.”

The outlook for wild summer steelhead is even more dismal. The Conservation Angler’s Dave Moskowitz, wrote, “The number of wild steelhead predicted to pass over Bonneville Dam in 2023 is less than 21,000 fish, for the entire Columbia and Snake River Basin.” Even practicing catch-and-release puts a wild, threatened summer steelhead at risk and this fact enters into ODFW’s framework for fishing closure decisions. They state in their Columbia and Snake river basins: Steelhead regulation and management page  that “while recreational and commercial non-tribal fisheries do not directly harvest wild steelhead, some mortality occurs in all fisheries due to incidental handle and release mortality.”

Fisheries managers struggle to accurately predict steelhead returns due to their life histories. Some years there are under-estimates. The converse, where the returns are much lower than forecast (such as the 2021 returns 31% less than forecasted), leads to sudden closures of fisheries like the Deschutes.  Currently, the plan is to use data from July passage over Bonneville to determine if closures above Bonneville (including the Deschutes) are warranted. That decision will not come until mid-August and, according the The Conservation Angler, the timing particularly puts pressure on wild steelhead as they make up a larger proportion of the early returns through July.

Conservation-minded anglers will carefully consider if they will target steelhead this summer. If you plan to get out this month and anytime, please remember the common sense practices to reduce your impact on these rare fish.

  • Do not fish if the water temperature is above 66 F
  • Make sure the barb on the hook is crushed – or better yet – cut if off in the style of Lee Spencer (the tug is literally the drug!)
  • Quickly land the fish and if it is wild, release it quickly and gently into the current
  • Do not take a wild fish out of the water – Keepfishwet
  • Fish for trout instead

Lisa Hansen