Steelhead fishing on the Salmon River was cut short this year, after a threat of a lawsuit from conservation groups forced the Idaho Department of Fish and Game to indefinitely suspend the season.

Businesses that rely on steelhead fishing are bracing for the suspension's economic impact and some are already feeling the effects.

The busiest times for steelhead fishing on the Salmon River are typically late fall and early spring. The season typically runs from approximately Sept. 1 to Dec. 31 and Jan. 1 to April 30. Fishing outfitters and guides along the river, from Salmon to Riggins, already are seeing spring booking cancellations due to the unknown status of spring steelhead season.

"It's going to hurt the whole community, all of the communities along the Salmon River and the Clearwater," said Jess Baugh, owner of Mountain River Outfitters, a family-owned fishing outfitter based in Riggins.

Last month, a group of six wildlife conservation groups threatened to sue the Idaho Department of Fish and Game and the Idaho Fish and Game Commission for allegedly violating the Endangered Species Act by allowing steelhead fishing without a federal permit. 

A federal permit, issued by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), is required for steelhead fishing because the species is considered threatened. Idaho Fish and Game's permit for steelhead fishing expired in 2011 and the agency applied for a new permit but it has not been issued over the last seven years, according to a Fish and Game news release. 

According to Idaho Fish and Game's director Virgil Moore, the federal agency "dropped the ball on permit renewal." In the meantime, Idaho Fish and Game has followed the stipulations set forth in its permit application and NOAA agreed not to pursue any legal action against the Idaho agency while the application was being reviewed. 

The threatened lawsuit — which was signed by The Conservation Angler, Wild Fish Conservancy, Snake River Waterkeeper, Friends of the Clearwater, Wild Salmon Rivers and Idaho Rivers United — contends that Idaho Fish and Game and the Idaho Fish and Game Commission allowed sport fisheries that harm and prevent the recovery of wild Snake River Basin steelhead, the population of which has declined to "perilously low return numbers" in recent years, according to a news release.

"Idaho's steelhead and salmon fisheries do not have an approval from federal regulators that authorizes the incidental take of wild Snake River Basin steelhead, not any other authorization or exemption that protects these ESA-listed wild fish from this fishery," said David Moskowitz, executive director of The Conservation Angler, in a news release. "We expect public agencies to obey the laws meant to prevent the extinction of wild steelhead."

Idaho Fish and Game suspended steelhead fishing to avoid the lawsuit, after a failed attempt to settle with the conservation groups. Steelhead fishing will be illegal starting Dec. 8.

"Fisheries in the Snake River boundary waters remain open to anglers licensed in Oregon and Washington in compliance with those states' rules, and tribal steelhead fisheries in Idaho will also continue," Moore said. 

For fishing outfitters and guides, the season suspension is detrimental to their business, not only in the short term but in the long term, because fishing trips are often planned months in advance. The uncertainty of when steelhead fishing will open again is scaring away future customers. 

Baugh said he books trip three to four months in advance. 

"There’s nobody that wants to go fishing," he said. "There’s a lot of bad press. It’s keeping a lot of people from booking."

For hospitality businesses, restaurants, gas stations and other service-oriented businesses, the suspension means there won't be many customers in town to serve. 

Salmon Rapids Lodge, a hotel in Riggins, already had several booking cancellations from visitors who planned to fish, according to the hotel's general manager Victoria Melton.

Tom Anderson, owner of the Salmon River Motel in Riggins, said he's typically half to three-quarters booked at this time of year. 

"Right now, it’s just nothing," he said.

And the Riverview Motel in Riggins won't open at all this winter for lack of business. 

Fish and Game representatives said they're aware that businesses are hurting due to the suspension and are working as quickly as possible to get the permit issue resolved. 

"There’s not much we can do when we close the season like that," said Idaho Fish and Game's public information supervisor Roger Phillips. "As far as financials, our hands are pretty tied on that."

Idaho Fish and Game representatives have been meeting with businesses along the Salmon River to discuss details of the season suspension and what the future will hold, according to several business owners. 

The financial impact will hurt the outfitters' businesses, but not being able to fish on their own time hurts, as well. 

Many people who work in the fishing industry along the Salmon River don't stop fishing when they clock out. 

"Any day I’m not here at work I’m out fishing," said Chip Berry, a sales clerk, who sells "guns, ammo and beer," at 93 Outdoor Sports in Salmon. "As a fisherman, it's pretty upsetting."

Berry moved to Idaho from California in 2009 to fish steelhead. He's been fishing all around the world, he said, but steelhead fishing is his favorite. 

"There ain't nothing like catching a 36-, 38-inch steelhead in running water," Berry said. 

While outfitters and anglers are frustrated by the impact the suspension will have on finances or on their personal fishing enjoyment, many of them said they also want what's best for Idaho's wild steelhead population, which has steadily declined in recent years. 

Berry said, after his initial anger at the season suspension, that, as a realist, he'd like to see the number of steelheads bounce back. 

"Whatever I can do to help the steelhead population return to this area, I’m all for it," he said. 

But, Idaho Fish and Game said suspending the season wasn't about curbing declining wild steelhead numbers because the catch-and-release rules for wild steelhead fishing keep mortality rates low. 

"Idaho sport fisheries result in the unintentional mortality of about 3 percent of the wild steelhead entering Idaho," Moore said in a letter to steelhead anglers. "Federal and state agency fishery scientists agree this level of handling and mortality does not jeopardize wild steelhead populations."

Initial demands in the threatened lawsuit included banning the use of boats, barbed hooks and bait while fishing. 

Bill Bernt, owner of Aggipah River Trips in Salmon, who has been fishing for steelhead on boats since the 1980s, said he got the impression the conservation groups want to change the way steelhead fishing is done.

Banning boats would ruin his business, Bernt said.

"That's what I do is fish from boats," he said. "From a business standpoint, that would be the end of it. Those provisions would be aimed at primarily favoring fly fisherman and everybody else would be out of luck." 

Idaho Fish and Game did not meet the lawsuit's boating, bait or barbless hook demands. 

"We see those as social issues," Phillips said. "Making those changes is not going to have any effect on wild fish and whether they’re harmed or not. We’re not going to make changes on social issues under the guise of protecting fish."

Fish and Game officials are confident that NOAA will issue Idaho a steelhead fishing permit but they don't know when. 

"We're very comfortable and confident that the permit is coming and it will keep our steelhead fishery, as we know it in Idaho, intact," said Ed Schriever, Fish and Game's deputy director of operations, at a Nov. 20 town hall meeting in Riggins.

Meanwhile, the steelhead season will remain suspended indefinitely. 

Baugh said he's going to work on his boats while he waits for the season to open again. 

"If you want to go fishing just put down a date," he said. "We’re trying to do what we can just in the off-chance Fish and Game comes through and opens the season."

Reporter Ryan Suppe can be reached at 208-542-6762. Follow him on Twitter: @salsuppe.

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