With trout season opening in the Wood River Valley tomorrow, local fly shops have been preparing for an influx of customers—and planning how to keep them safe.
Terry Ring, owner of Silver Creek Outfitters in Ketchum, said his store has remodeled its fly fishing department to encourage social distancing, and all guests are asked to wear masks in light of the current COVID-19 situation.
“We’ve eliminated about a third of our inventory and have created a more open floor plan with less clutter so our customers can shop in a safer environment,” Ring said.
In recent weeks, the store—which reopens today—received a high level of interest in fly-tying and inquiries from customers itching to get on the water, he said. And, Ring expects that the below-average snowpack and warm, dry spring should provide good early-season fishing in the Big Wood River.
In anticipation of today’s opening, Silver Creek employees have disinfected the store “from floor to ceiling,” Ring said.
Participants on guided fishing trips will also need to follow in their own cars and wear masks on the water.
“We’re planning on taking separate vehicles, providing hand sanitizer and thoroughly cleaning equipment,” he said.
A block south on Main Street, Lost River Outfitters has also implemented in-store safety measures such as sanitization stations and a mask requirement. The shop has seen a flurry of activity since its reopening on Monday, owner Scott Schnebly said.
“There’s a real pent-up desire for people to get out there,” he said.
In March and April, the store had to close its steelhead-fishing lodge in Lower Stanley for the first time in 30 years over coronavirus concerns.
“When we fish the Salmon River, our guests will sometimes have to hold hands to get across,” Schnebly said. “Of course, that couldn’t happen this year.”
Lost River Outfitters is still planning its annual summer fly-fishing trip to Yellowstone National Park, he said, where participants will—after driving separately—fish the Firehole, Gibbon and Madison rivers next month. Guests signed up for local fishing trips will also be required to drive in separate cars and bring masks, and everyone has the option of bringing their own meals.
While drift boat trips would be “impossible” during the COVID-19 outbreak, Schnebly said, walk-and-wade and float-tube fishing trips can still be conducted safely.
“Our fly rods are at least 9 feet long. That’s a great measuring stick,” he said. “And when someone lands a fish, their guide should be able to net it from 9 feet away, or close to that. If people need to put on a new fly or tippet, guides can also help with that from a distance, too.”
From what Schnebly has seen on recent trips to the Salmon, Little Wood and Big Lost rivers, fly fishermen have been “very conscientious” about social distancing.
“But when we start mixing with the general public on a paid basis, that’s all going to be new to us. We’ll have to see how it goes,” he said. “I hope [Idaho] is not opening too quickly and being cavalier in our approach—there are still people here who don’t believe in masks, and I worry this whole thing could be shut down again.”
On Saturday, the Idaho Fish and Game Commission approved resuming sales of nonresident fishing licenses. That has prompted Idaho’s fishing businesses to brace for an influx of tourists, Schnebly said.
“There’s been a lot of interest, a lot of demand. People are wanting to get out of the cities, where they’re stacked on top of one another,” he said. “There are many tourists, I think, who will come because they believe that our open-air environment is safer.”
What to know about spawning season
This month’s lower-than-average spring runoff has made it easier to enjoy the yearly spring spawning ritual of rainbow trout in the Big Wood River, an attraction in its own right. Since April 1, the river and other fisheries in the Magic Valley Region, including Silver Creek, have been closed to protect these spawning fish.
As the days grow longer and warmer in April, rainbow trout pick up on those cues, traveling upstream to ideal spawning habitat—typically well-oxygenated water with a gravel stream bottom. Using their tails as fans, female trout build depressions in the gravel and deposit between 2,000 and 3,000 eggs while males stand by, waiting for the chance to inseminate the eggs.
Redds, or the depressions females make in the gravel, can be spotted by looking for the river bottom, according to the Idaho Department of Fish and Game. They’re usually made with lighter-colored gravel, making them easy to find.
Schnebly—a veteran fly-fishing guide—said anglers will still come across spawning groups on the Big Wood River this weekend and into early summer. He has one piece of advice: leave the fish alone.
“Let them do their thing, because these are the fish you’re going to catch two years from now,” he said.
Because hatchery rainbow trout are sterilized early on, most spawning rainbow trout that anglers find in state waters are native.
“Both wild and hatchery rainbow trout look the same physically,” a recent Fish and Game press release stated. “However, all rainbow trout eggs produced in Idaho’s hatcheries, with very few exceptions, are pressure shocked in the eyed-egg stage [sterilizing the embryos], when the embryo’s eyes can be seen through the shell of its egg.”
Earlier this month, the Big Wood River was stocked with 425 rainbow trout, supplied by nearby Fish and Game hatcheries—the Hayspur Hatchery in Bellevue and the Sawtooth Hatchery near Stanley. (The Magic Reservoir received over 198,000 rainbow trout since mid-April, 14,000 of which were over 8 inches.)
Schnebly said that, generally speaking, hatchery rainbow trout don’t have the best reputation among seasoned fly fishing anglers.
“They compete for food, and—if they are able to spawn—they deplete the genetics of the wild strain,” he said. “Unlike the wild fish, which have grown up from an egg and struggled their whole lives, the hatchery fish grew up essentially hand-fed. They don’t survive and fight well.”
Schnebly believes that in streams that are self-sustaining, wild fish should be protected from hatchery fish. By avoiding a few rookie mistakes, anglers can also do their part to conserve wild trout populations, he said.
“Don’t play the fish until it’s exhausted, especially on warm days—you want to land the fish as quickly as quickly as you possibly can. A net helps with that,” he said.
When given the choice, he’ll opt for a nonabrasive rubber net to protect the fish’s slime coat and support its body weight.
“You’ll also want to wet your hands before handling a fish. And before you put it back in for good, hold it in the water horizontally and let the current come over its gills, so it can revive itself,” he said.
One common mistake he sees is people holding fish up for four or five minutes in an attempt to get a good photo.
“If you’re going to take a picture, give the fish a drink,” he said. “They can only stand being out of the water for a minute or slightly longer.”
Overall, though, the chance a fish will die after it’s released—called “hooking mortality” by researchers—is very low with fly fishing compared to bait fishing, according to a study published in the North American Journal of Fisheries. While Yellowstone cutthroat trout in Yellowstone National Park had a hooking mortality of 0.3 percent when caught on a fly, bait-caught trout had about a 16 percent mortality rate.
That discrepancy is because in fly fishing, a fish is landed using its eyesight rather than smell, Schnebly said.
“With flies, trout feed visually. They see the offering, they bite it and you recognize it and strike,” he said. “Ninety-nine percent of the time, the fish doesn’t swallow the hook.”
Bait fishing, on the other hand, doesn’t usually allow anglers to release fish back into the river unharmed, he said. Once a fish smells a worm, it’s apt to swallow it and hook itself in the gills or internal organs. The fish don’t have coagulants in their blood, so they internal damage is often fatal, Schnebly said.
In a Wednesday interview, regional Fish and Game spokesman Terry Thompson offered a few tips to increase fish survivability when catch-and-release fishing using bait. His first tip: never yank out a swallowed hook with pliers. Leaving it in actually gives the fish a chance to shed the hook within a few months, he said
“Simply cut the line as close to the mouth as you can. Pulling the hook out will often kill the fish,” he said.
Handling mistakes are also common.
“I’ve seen folks put a hard squeeze on a fish to hold it still and then release it. It’s pretty hard on a fish to survive aggressive handling,” Thompson said.
Other methods to increase fish survivability include using barbless circle hooks as opposed to barbed J-hooks and removing the hook while the fish is in the water. Reeling in a fish against rocks, leaving it hanging vertically on the line or holding it by its lip or gills can all contribute to irreversible damage, as can tossing it back, studies show.
Thompson said if an angler intends to eat his or her catch, the best way to kill a fish is to hit it on the head with a stick, stunning it, and slice the gills with a sharp knife.
“[Gill-cutting] makes the fish a better eating fish,” he said. “Then, the fish should be put on ice.”
To accommodate anglers’ different agendas, he said, bag limits along the Big Wood River vary.
“We look for ways to provide different opportunities for anglers who fish the Big Wood River, from those who want to catch and keep fish for consumption to those who want an opportunity to catch a large fish where no retention is allowed,” Thompson said.
Schnebly said he’s picked up on a “bit of a struggle” locally between anglers who want to consume their catch and those who fish only for pleasure.
“I think most fly fishermen fish for the sport, for the art form,” he said. “You can never master all of the casting techniques—you’re always improving. And for most people, it’s a good feeling knowing that you could, hypothetically, feed your tribe.”
Overall, he said, his fly-fishing customers tend to be conservation minded.
“They realize a lot of things depend on trout to live—otters, herons, kingfishers, eagles,” he said. “They want the fish to survive, mature and spawn.”
However, he said the growing popularity of the sport should be taken into consideration.
“The industry is growing. We have more fishermen and women, more crowding and overharvesting,” he said. “Regulations need to adjust with these changes in the valley.”
For Schnebly, that means tightening regulations by adding zero-bag limits in sensitive areas and spawning zones along the Big Wood River and other waterways.
“Our area depends on having a healthy fish population, and I think we’re behind the curve locally in protecting our trophy fishery areas,” he said. “The rivers, which feed the lakes and reservoirs, need our protection now more than ever.”