High noon for Idahos salmon
Commentary by TED CHU
It was June 15, 1973, one of those mornings complete with swirling snow
flurries alternating with freezing rain which reminds you a wintry day can occur in any
month in the Idaho mountains.
As I stood ready to climb the fishing rock at Deadman Hole on the Salmon
River, a man in coveralls, who my memory tells me was in his mid 60s, gingerly made his
way down off the rock. I asked if he was giving up. He assured me he wasn't but that the
cold and wet weather was making his arthritis unbearable so he was going to his truck to
warm up. He promised to be back and wished me luck.
I took a position on the rock and entered into the casting rotation with
anglers already there. It was my first attempt at salmon fishing. Friends in Challis had
provided me with proper gear and instruction, however I knew the likelihood of my hooking
a fish was extremely low and I was prepared to spend several days paying my dues before
earning a salmon.
But classic beginners luck struck within no more than 20 minutes when one
of my jerks on the rod was met by an incredibly powerful pull in response. I yelled
"fish on" and immediately the other fishermen scrambled to get their lines in
and out of the way as they cheered me on and offered advice on how to play the fish.
I gradually worked my way to the downstream end of the rock as the fish
tired and was eventually netted by a man standing waist deep in the snowmelt river.
As I started down off the rock to claim my fish I was amazed to note that
the netter was not wearing boots or waders. He emerged dripping from the river with my 35
inch fish which was immediately removed from the net by another angler who insisted on
field dressing it. My first salmon and before I could even touch it, there it was, cleaned
and hanging from a willow! My luck continued and the next day I hooked and landed another
I fished for salmon a few more times without success. As a conservation
officer and later biologist with the Idaho Department of Fish and Game (now retired) my
attention turned to enforcing the fishing regulations and, as the runs plummeted, to
enforcing fishing closures. It is not mere coincidence that the last of the four dams on
the Lower Snake was completed in 1975 and the final full salmon season on the Upper Salmon
River was in 1974 followed by three closed years.
An abbreviated token season was authorized in 1978, fishing then closing
permanently immediately after the last of the fish that did not have to negotiate all
eight dams in the system on their downstream migration had returned home.
My strongest memories are of the incredible excitement generated by these
magnificent fish and the lengths to which people will go to catch one. Some of my saddest
memories are of tense standoffs with Nez Pearce anglers at Rapid River Hatchery near
Riggins when the agencies believed that even their token fishery was too much for the
remnant runs to withstand. The real enemies of the fish, both structural and political
(financial), were, of course, many miles downstream (or uptown).
Those enemies have almost won this war; a war of attrition of both salmon
and the people who knew them. Today there are only a handful of people under the age of 50
and essentially none under the age of 40 who have caught a wild Idaho salmon. A generation
of parents and grandparents have lost the opportunity to take a generation of children
salmon fishing on the Salmon River. And salmon are not just for anglers. They are also for
us simply to marvel at, for bears and eagles to eat, and for recycling nutrients into
cold, sterile environments.
The forces that stalled the funding of mitigation hatcheries, stalled
modifying dams, stalled, stalled and are still stalling can smell victory. Soon the great
fish, which are nothing but a nuisance to them, will be gone forever. Which nuisance will
be next? Steelhead? Sturgeon? Cutthroat?
Then the first encouraging news about salmon in 30 years. A man from
Boise, Reed Burkhalter, has the brilliant audacity to suggest that an objective look
should be taken at retiring the four dams on the lower Snake River. He and others back up
his assertion with a snowballing of economic facts and fish science that demand attention.
How did the stallers react? They embraced with new vigor all the failed
strategies of the past, came up with some new more bizarre techno fixes, and quickly
developed some new scapegoats, most notably a tern colony. How can a tern colony at the
mouth of the Columbia River be destroying Idaho's salmon when almost none of our smolts
even make it that far down river?
Idaho politicians Kempthorne, Craig and Chenoweth-Hage quickly sought to
calm us, their subjects, by saying in so many words that the whole idea was so ridiculous
that we shouldn't worry our collective pretty little heads about it or waste our time even
talking or thinking about it. How demeaning!
The Idaho Legislature went apoplectic when biologists, some employed by
the Fish and Game Department, but acting as independent scientists, signed a petition to
the President recommending the dams be bypassed for fish. As a chilling commentary
regarding the state of free speech in today's one-party Idaho, the legislature then denied
the agency a much needed fee increase as punishment. Politicians across the northwest,
rushed to ridicule the idea and initiate actions to block any attempts to alter the dams.
This before allowing the public an opportunity to even review the evidence and make their
Now the public has that opportunity. The US Army Corps of Engineers is
currently hosting public meetings seeking comment on alternatives for improving downstream
migration conditions for juvenile salmon (steelhead would be affected similarly). Only one
of the alternatives presented is given any real hope of restoring runs. That is
alternative four: breaching the four dams on the Lower Snake River. The other alternatives
suggest that at best they might prevent total extinction of Idaho salmon. If ever there
was a time to act for these fish that time is now.
The benefit versus cost of these four dams should be re-evaluated.
Breaching them will produce some short-term economic hardships (as well as some
substantial benefits), which should be dealt with generously and compassionately.
Since shipping by barge is currently subsidized, there is no reason why
shipping by land couldn't be. Funding all aspects of breaching will be less expensive in
the long run than continuing to fund, at approximately one billion dollars a year, current
failing efforts at salmon recovery.
Building the dams also caused economic hardships, which were not mitigated
for or subsidized. A small but graphic example can be seen along Highway 28 which follows
the Lemhi Rivera now abandoned motel on the west side of the road with a salmon on
its signbuilt to cater to salmon anglers years ago.
Optimistic projections concede that court challenges, red tape, and
renewed stalling may delay the start of dam breaching for up to 10 years after approval.
This provides ample time to develop and prove new solutions at which point the process
could be halted. However, waiting any longer to start that process is inexcusable and
probably fatal to the fish. And, if contrary to all predictions, breaching should fail to
recover the fish, the earthen portions of the dams can always be replaced, serving as
symbolic tombstones for the lost runs.
Every good story has a good ending. The man who struggled to the bank
through the icy water (without boots or waders) with my salmon in his net? He was the same
arthritis sufferer mentioned earlier! And I believe the fellow who dressed my fish for me
simply wanted to get his hands on a salmon and go through the ritual. I rewarded each with
a skein of eggs from my fish only to be scolded later by my friends for being overly
generous! I only hope they put them to good use as bait and caught fish, too.
As a biologist and once salmon fisherman, I agree with 95 percent of the
region's scientists that breaching the dams is the only hope we have of restoring such
scenes to the Salmon River and preserving the river's right to its name.
Hearings are scheduled for today in Boise; March 7 in Idaho Falls; and
March 8 in Twin Falls.
Written comment can be submitted until March 31 to: U.S. Army Corps of
Engineers, Walla Walla District, Attention: Lower Snake River Study, 201 North Third Ave,
Walla Walla, Wash. 99362-1876; or can be faxed to Attention Lower Snake River Study,
For more information on the study and the public meetings visit
Ted Chu is a biologist who lives in Idaho Falls.