A bountiful summer steelhead run prompted the state Department of Fish and Wildlife to open the season early for hatchery-raised steelhead through the Hanford Reach, and allow anglers to keep up to three fish daily.
More than 30,000 summer steelhead had been counted at Priest Rapids Dam through mid-September, compared to the 10-year average of 12,500, said Paul Hoffarth, district fish biologist.
He said the total returns to the Columbia River could break the 630,200-fish record set in 2001.
The department opened fishing for hatchery-reared steelhead on Tuesday. Anglers also are being allowed to retain up to three hatchery-reared summer steelhead per day between the blue bridge in Pasco and Priest Rapids Dam.
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That area includes the upper portion of the Reach, stretching from the wooden powerline towers at the old Hanford townsite to Priest Rapids Dam, which hasn't been open to steelhead fishing since 1996.
The department also planned to open early the lower portion of the Reach -- from the wooden powerline towers downriver to the blue bridge in Pasco -- to allow anglers to catch more hatchery fish, said John Easterbrooks, regional fish manager for south central Washington.
Only hatchery fish measuring at least 20 inches that are marked for identification with a clipped adipose fin and a healed scar can be retained. All wild steelhead must be released unharmed, and may not be removed from the water.
Easterbrooks said the high number of returning summer steelhead has made it possible to expand fishing opportunities throughout the Hanford Reach.
"This is a great opportunity for anglers to catch some terrific fish under ideal early fall weather conditions, while also helping to prevent hatchery steelhead from crowding out wild fish on the spawning grounds," Easterbrooks said in a statement.
The hatchery steelhead fishery in the upper Reach is scheduled to run through Oct. 22, concurrent with salmon fishing for fall chinook and coho. In the lower section of the Reach, the steelhead fishery will continue through Oct. 31 from the blue bridge to the wooden powerline towers at the old Hanford townsite.
Because both wild and hatchery-reared summer steelhead in the Hanford Reach are listed for protection under the federal Endangered Species Act, fish and wildlife was required to obtain a permit from the National Marine Fishery Service before opening the fishery. "Under the ESA, using a selective fishery to remove excess hatchery fish is a recognized strategy in conserving wild stocks," Easterbrooks said.
He said he doesn't think the steelhead run will break the record of 2001, but could wind up between 575,000 and 580,000 steelhead.