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Steelhead season heats up

Posted: Thursday, September 26, 2002

LEWISTON, Idaho (AP) -- Those catching steelhead this summer and fall should take extra caution before clubbing their fish and throwing them in the cooler.

Steelhead are not the only large sea-run fish in the rivers. Fall chinook and coho are also returning and many of them will have their adipose fins removed.

''Just by looking at a fish and seeing an ad clip doesn't mean its a steelhead,'' said Ed Buettner, a fisheries biologist with the Idaho Department of Fish and Game at Lewiston.

He's not kidding.

Several thousand fall chinook are expected to return above Lower Granite Dam this fall. Anglers might accidentally hook them while fishing in the Clearwater, Snake, Salmon, Grand Ronde and Imnaha rivers.

Fall chinook are listed as a threatened species and can't be kept by anglers.

Here is where it gets confusing. Some of the fall chinook have had their adipose fins clipped. That means anglers have to make sure the fish they've landed is actually a steelhead before they kill it.

Fall chinook are most easily identified by their black lower gum lines and mouth. Chinook also have blotchy and irregular-shaped spots on their tails. Steelhead have uniform spots that are rounded.

However, things get more complicated. There will also be a small number of coho salmon returning. These fish can't be kept by anglers even though some of them may have clipped adipose fins.

Coho have dark gums but a white mouth. Coho also can be distinguished from steelhead because they have fewer spots on their tails. Steelhead should have spots distributed throughout their tails but coho only have spots on the upper portion of their tails.

Got it? Well, wait a minute, it's even more complicated than that. This fall there will also be a large number of hatchery steelhead returning to the Snake River and its tributaries that can't be kept by anglers.

These fish won't have their adipose fins removed. But they will be of obvious hatchery origin to the experienced steelhead angler. The steelhead, known as stubbies, will have worn-down to nonexistent dorsal fins. Even though they were born in hatcheries, these fish can't be kept by anglers. They are part of a tribal program that aims to boost the number of steelhead spawning in the wild.

So to recap. If it's a steelhead and has a clipped adipose fin, it can be kept. If its a coho or a fall chinook, it can never be kept even if it has a clipped adipose fin. It's confusing and the only way to be sure you are complying with the law is to make sure you can tell the difference between all three species.

So once again, steelhead have roundish spots on their bodies and tails and light-colored lower gums. Fall chinook have large, irregular-shaped spots and black lower gums. Coho have irregular spots that appear only on the upper portion of their tails. Their lower gums should be dark and their mouths white.

The one certainty in all of this is, if the fish has an adipose fin that has not been clipped, it can't be kept.

The Snake, Salmon and Grand Ronde rivers are open to catch-and-keep hatchery steelhead fishing. The Clearwater opens to catch-and-keep fishing Oct. 15.

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