Steelhead management in Columbia & Snake river basins
Follow this page for background on steelhead management, to provide feedback and learn about decisions when they happen for the Columbia, Deschutes, John Day, Umatilla, Walla Walla and Grand Ronde rivers.
In this Article
Columbia and Snake river basins: Steelhead regulation and management
Low returns of summer steelhead expected to continue in 2023
The 2023 aggregated preseason forecast for upriver summer steelhead (those destined for areas upstream of Bonneville Dam including the Snake River Basin) was recently developed and indicates that returns will continue to be poor, marking what would be the 8th consecutive year of low returns.
Snake River steelhead have to pass eight dams and consistently have lower life-cycle survival rates than mid-Columbia steelhead which only have to pass three or four dams. In addition to impacts from dams, degraded freshwater habitat and predation, warmer ocean conditions may be significant factors in the low steelhead returns. According to a NOAA study, unlike coho and Chinook, Columbia River steelhead move rapidly offshore into waters that have been unusually warm and less productive recently. So, while some salmon runs have improved incrementally with better ocean conditions closer to the U.S. and Canadian coasts, steelhead runs remain poor.
Steelhead are difficult to forecast due to their life-history, so the public should be aware the preseason forecast comes with considerable uncertainty. For example, the return in 2022 was 23% higher than forecast; conversely the 2021 return was 31% less than forecast. The preseason forecast will be updated after about 50 percent of the run passes Bonneville Dam, which typically occurs in mid-August for A-Index and mid to late September for B-Index steelhead. All Columbia River fisheries, are managed based on in-season estimates of abundance once they are available. (Find the latest information on steelhead returns on the Columbia River DART page and by subscribing to Columbia River Management fact sheets.)
Given the continuing trend of poor returns, anglers should anticipate steelhead fishing restrictions and closures in the mainstem Columbia River and tributaries in 2023, similar to previous years—including broad area and time closures, one-steelhead bag limits when open, and thermal angling sanctuaries near tributary mouths upstream of Bonneville. Collectively, these regulations have further reduced the take of ESA-listed wild fish and increased hatchery escapements to help hatcheries collect sufficient broodstock.
Regulations may vary across time and across the basin based on the life cycle, the strength of individual tributary runs and the level of risk to wild upriver summer steelhead. The run of most concern, upriver A/B-Index summer steelhead, do not enter the lower Columbia River until early summer. The recreational fishery in the lower river downstream of The Dalles Dam (currently open for hatchery winter steelhead under permanent regulations) does not begin to handle these fish until July and even then, the majority of catch is still destined for lower river tributaries.
But A/B-Index fish that entered the Columbia River last summer are still present in the mainstem Columbia River upstream of The Dalles Dam through winter and early spring of 2023. Due to poor returns in 2022, tributaries like the John Day and Umatilla rivers, are currently closed to steelhead fishing.
Last year, ODFW fish biologists across the Columbia and Snake River basins developed frameworks for opening or closing summer steelhead fisheries in tributaries (Deschutes, John Day, Umatilla, Walla Walla, Grand Ronde/Imnaha). These frameworks provide transparency on what management actions will be taken and when, so anglers, guides and local communities can prepare for restrictions (see Tributaries link for frameworks). ODFW will continue to evaluate these frameworks and may adjust as new information is gathered.
About summer steelhead fisheries
Steelhead are rainbow or redband trout (O. mykiss) that migrate to the ocean during their first or second year, returning one to three years later to spawn. While in the ocean, steelhead grow significantly larger than trout who never leave fresh water. Summer-run steelhead return to freshwater between May and October and require several months to mature and spawn. Winter-run steelhead return to freshwater between November and April and spawn shortly thereafter. Coastal streams are dominated by winter-run steelhead, whereas inland steelhead of the Columbia River basin are almost exclusively summer-run steelhead.
Wild upriver summer Columbia River steelhead (those destined for areas upstream of Bonneville Dam) are protected under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) and have been listed as Threatened since the late 1990s.
Ocean conditions, predation, impacts from dams (including high water temperatures, low flows and passage difficulties), fishery impacts, degraded freshwater habitat, and hatchery production and/or practices all contribute to their Threatened status. ODFW staff and other natural resource agencies are fully engaged in addressing these factors through continued negotiation with hydropower operators via the U.S. V Oregon framework, Columbia River Biological Opinion, predator management (including sea lions and pikeminnow), habitat improvements, protections like thermal angling sanctuaries, fishery regulations, and careful hatchery fish management.
The B-Index upriver summer steelhead run is one of concern. B-Index steelhead typically spend two years in the ocean before returning to freshwater and are defined as steelhead larger than 31 inches for management purposes. They pass Bonneville Dam beginning in August and peaking in October. While wild fish in this component primarily return to the Clearwater Basin in Idaho, B-index sized fish can return to tributaries throughout the Columbia River Basin to spawn. The A-Index run (fish smaller than 31 inches, generally spend one year in ocean) and Upriver Skamania Stock (primarily hatchery origin upstream of Bonneville Dam, returns to Columbia River tributaries between Bonneville Dam and the Klickitat River) are also management components in the aggregate run. The A-Index run is also becoming more of a concern, with diminished runs also posing challenges for collecting enough hatchery broodstock.
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.
Due to this incidental mortality, fisheries authorized in the Columbia River and tributaries must stay within certain impacts on protected fish. Under the U.S. v Oregon Management Agreement (MA), the states are authorized to conduct fisheries occurring downstream of Hwy. 395 near Pasco, WA within an overall allowed impact of ≤4% for both wild A-Index and B-Index summer steelhead for the entire year (2% of that for the fall season).
The states of Oregon, Washington, and Idaho and the Columbia River tribes have a consistent track record of remaining within the federally approved harvest constraints (e.g., ESA impacts) that guide annual fishery management. Fisheries in the Snake River and upper Columbia River that impact upriver summer steelhead have separate ESA impact coverage and have also remained within those limits.
Regulations to protect steelhead
Since 2017 when steelhead forecasts downturned, Oregon and Washington fishery managers have implemented a number of fishery restrictions throughout the Columbia River and various tributaries to further reduce steelhead mortalities. Protective regulations have included broad area and time closures; time/area/gear considerations for commercial fisheries; one-steelhead bag limits when open; thermal angling sanctuaries to protect summer steelhead where they stage in the mid-Columbia and tributaries; and hoot-owl restrictions (closing fishing at 2 p.m. before temperatures are warmest). Non-treaty commercial fisheries occurring in the fall are managed to reduce impacts to steelhead by using large mesh gill nets (8 or 9-inch minimum mesh size) in Chinook-directed fisheries, fishing during times of higher abundance for target stocks, switching to live-capture tangle nets when targeting coho, and delaying the start of that fishery until the majority of the upriver steelhead run has passed through the lower river. Fall treaty gillnet fisheries generally utilize large mesh (8-inch minimum) to focus on fall Chinook. Collectively, these regulations have further reduced the take of ESA-listed wild fish and increased hatchery escapements.
ESA impacts will vary depending on where and when a fishery is occurring. While the Columbia River’s summer steelhead run can include populations originating from both lower and upper river systems, steelhead destined for the lower river tend to enter earlier. Lower river winter steelhead fishing targets fish which enter from November to April and do not pass above The Dalles Dam (e.g. upriver summer steelhead are generally not encountered in this fishery).
Steelhead fishing in the lower Columbia River during the early summer (May and June) targets Skamania Stock, which is primarily hatchery origin fish that return to tributaries above and below Bonneville Dam. Beginning in July, the recreational fishery in the lower river begins to handle some upriver A/B-Index summer steelhead, which have been the focus of recent concern, though the majority of the catch is still destined for lower river tributaries.
Besides bag reductions, a series of rolling steelhead retention closures have been used in recent years throughout the mainstem Columbia River to limit the handle of A/B Index summer steelhead.
Impacts of fishing on upriver summer steelhead have been higher in the mid-Columbia and tributaries like the Deschutes, John Day and Umatilla rivers, where upriver summer steelhead stage before migrating to spawning areas throughout the Basin. Substantial angling effort focuses on hatchery summer steelhead, but encounter rates of wild summer steelhead can be high in these fisheries. Fishing was very restricted in this area last year as managers took drastic steps to conserve wild steelhead in these mixed stock fisheries.
Anglers further up the system (including on the Snake River in Idaho and in the Grande Ronde and Imnaha in NE Oregon) were able to target hatchery summer steelhead last year because these fisheries occur later in the year, the fish are closer to their destination, and more information on tributary-specific returns is available.
While similar restrictions are likely whenever there are low runs, few additional fishery-restricting actions remain available to provide additional substantive reductions in upriver steelhead impacts. Remaining non-treaty salmon fisheries are not targeting steelhead, so closing salmon-directed fishing will not result in dramatic additional savings. For example, in 2021, wild steelhead impacts accrued in non-treaty fall fisheries were very low and well-below ESA impact limits: 0.54% or 103 mortalities for A-index; 0.45 % or 8 mortalities for B-index.
Forecasting, season-setting to reduce impacts on upriver fish
Columbia River fisheries are likely the most intensively managed in the world. Fishery managers from both Oregon and Washington use near real-time information on not only fishery performance but also on stock abundance by closely monitoring runs via dam passage counts, long-standing collaborative creel programs, catch-sampling and fish ticket data for commercial fisheries, and other methods. Seasons are planned with consideration of preseason forecasts but managed as closely as possible to actual abundance, with the goal of completing the season having conducted fisheries that are consistent with the realized actual abundance.
Forecasts for these runs are produced annually by the U.S. v Oregon Technical Advisory Committee (TAC) Committee in February. In March, state, federal and tribal fishery managers gather to plan summer and fall salmon fisheries in the “North of Falcon” process (named after the southern border of active management for Washington salmon stocks which is Oregon’s Cape Falcon). The North of Falcon process coincides with meetings of the Pacific Fishery Management Council, the federal authority responsible for setting ocean salmon seasons 3 to 200 miles off the Pacific coast. North of Falcon also functions in tandem with the Pacific Salmon Commission's Pacific Salmon Treaty agreements, which guide the conservation and management of salmon fisheries for the U.S. and Canada.
The TAC is generally able to begin updating the various upriver steelhead runs that pass Bonneville after the point where about 50 percent passage is normally expected—or around mid-June for upriver Skamania stock, mid-August for A-Index steelhead, and mid/late-September for B-Index steelhead. Over the years, the TAC has observed that forecasts attempted prior to this timeframe are far less accurate than those made later. Reviews, assessments and actions are frequent during this time period, particularly August and September, which are the most intensively managed portion of the fishing year for managers. Due to differential run timing for wild and hatchery components, predicting the sub-components of each stock is more challenging.
News releases and articles
- Steelhead fishing restrictions continue in new year in mid-Columbia and John Day, Walla Walla rivers (Dec. 29, 2022)
- Steelhead fishing will close in the John Day River this fall due to low projected returns (Sept. 7, 2022)
- No steelhead retention in portions of John Day, Umatilla, Walla Walla rivers this fall (Aug. 19, 2022)
- Fishing to open Aug. 15 on Deschutes River due to improved steelhead returns (July 29, 2022)
- Fishing closures in Deschutes River this summer to protect steelhead; Trout fishing to remain open (May 25, 2022)
- States set 2022 Columbia River summer/fall salmon and steelhead seasons (May 9, 2022)
- ODFW seeks input on steelhead management in Columbia Basin including Deschutes River - Complete survey by April 11, join online webinar April 19 (March 24, 2022)
- Tips on avoiding steelhead when fishing
- Catch-and-release: Tips to reduce fish mortality
- Fishing closures extended for Columbia River above The Dalles Dam, several tributaries to protect record low run of summer steelhead (Dec. 22, 2021)
- Emergency fishing closures in Deschutes, other mid-Columbia tributaries begin Sept. 1 due to low steelhead returns (Aug. 27, 2021)
Steelhead management in the Columbia and Snake river basins -- a recording of the April 19, 2022 webinar.
2022 pre-season spring summer forecasts
Summer steelhead summary Aug 27 2021 (pdf) -- Joint-State Columbia River Salmon Fishery Policy Review Committee
Learn more about the specific steelhead fisheries, including seasons and conservation issues (pdfs).
John Day Framework
Umatilla/Walla Walla Framework
Grande Ronde / Imnaha Framework
Fisheries Management and Evaluation Plan - ODFW Summer Steelhead Fisheries in the Grande Ronde, Imnaha, and Snake Rivers
Questions about steelhead management in the Columbia and Snake river basins?
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