The first fish salvage order of 2021 was issued in mid-June by officials with the Idaho Department of Fish and Game.
Low water levels were registered earlier than usual, Roger Phillips with Fish and Game said. That situation “signals more challenges ahead as summer progresses,” he said. “With drought in some areas and near-record high temperatures throughout the state in late June, conditions may become hazardous for fish.”
“Fish salvage is common in Idaho, but this is about two months earlier than normal, so this is shaping up to be a bad year,” Fish and Game State Fisheries Manager Joe Kozfkay said.
Fisheries managers watch these situations and know what actions to take. The decisions aren’t taken lightly, and they can be controversial but biologists have experience and scientific research to help guide them, Phillips said.
If there’s a reservoir, lake or pond that’s destined to be drained by the end of summer, or become uninhabitable to fish, options are limited to trapping and relocating fish, opening up for salvage fishing or doing nothing.
“Anglers may think we’re reluctant to trap and relocate fish, but under the correct circumstances, the opposite is true,” Kozfkay said. “Our staff will work hard to provide and maintain fishing opportunities, and sometimes, rescuing stranded fish is a good use of resources.”
Overall, fish in Idaho are resilient, and depending on the severity of the situation, populations can be unaffected or quickly rebound. That’s not always the case, especially when reservoirs and ponds are drained so low, or become so warm, that they no longer support the preferred fish species, according to Phillips. Sometimes allowing salvage fishing may be a better alternative in some cases, even knowing the fish that anglers don’t harvest are likely to die.
It’s common for anglers to be frustrated when they see their favorite fishery withering away, but Fish and Game personnel remind people that most Idaho reservoirs were built to store irrigation water. The fact that game fish populations exist there is because water owners and managers worked cooperatively with Fish and Game to provide fishing opportunities. But a water manager’s first priority and obligation is to deliver irrigation water.
The situation is usually less dire in Idaho’s rivers and streams, Phillips said. Fish in those waters, typically trout, have evolved to withstand the rigors of varied temperatures and river flows.
Many of Idaho’s river systems have a variety of elevations, terrain and environments. When rivers get warm during summer, fish can usually migrate into areas with cooler water or tributaries that are shady and cooler. Fish may also alter their daily activity and become more active when the water is coolest and rest when water is warmest.
Trout populations are resilient for reasons anglers may not suspect. It’s counter intuitive, but trout populations often remain stable not because fish rarely die, but because many die. There’s high annual turnover in many of Idaho’s trout streams, typically ranging from 30 to 60 percent of the population. One might think that would lead to drastic swings, but that high turnover is actually what makes the population stable, Phillips said.
The best protection for trout is healthy rivers where they can find cold-water refuge during periods of high temperatures, so ensuring fish can freely move up and down the river system and into tributaries helps sustain healthy and abundant populations, Phillips said.