Wild salmon and steelhead are icons of Idaho. Millions of these fish once returned home to Idaho each year from the ocean, but climate change and hydroelectric dams have reduced them to a shadow of this abundance. Still, many in Idaho have treasured experiences with salmon – encounters with one of our world’s true natural wonders. People have built their lives and livelihoods on anadromous fish and the wild rivers they live in. “Stories of the Salmon” will tell these tales, show the relevance of wild salmon to Idaho’s economy, ecology, and society and culture of Idaho, and why we must protect these fish from extinction.
Growing up in Colorado, I’ve always been drawn to wild places. The Yampa River is the last major free-flowing tributary of the Colorado; something I always took pride in long before Idaho became a part of my life. I’ve lived my whole life near rivers, and that’s really the hallmark of Idaho: it’s a river state with wild streams right in your backyard. That’s what drew me here originally, but I also had this strange, obsessively uninformed fascination with anadromous fish that migrate hundreds of miles from Idaho to the ocean and back every year. I’d never seen one before, but I knew that somewhere in Idaho, they were there.
I started my Idaho career working as a river guide on the Lochsa back in 2016 after working rivers in Colorado for a few years. Some of my buddies were supposed to come, too, but they bailed. I came alone, drawn by what I might learn here. I remember sitting next to Fish Creek, a tributary stream to the Lochsa, to see just a handful of spawning steelhead and being completely blown away. These were big fish: B-run Clearwater basin steelhead, and they just stayed there…and so did I. I sat for hours a day, four or five days in a row just watching these massive fish that had gone to the Pacific, halfway across the ocean, and then back to Idaho. That was just insane to me, and I was totally enamored.
The first time I paddled the Salmon River near Riggins, I was blown away by the mere thought that there were salmon swimming upstream through the torrential spring flows there. Salmon make a place feel wild. The whole reason I came here in the first place and why I stayed is that there’s still pieces of unspoiled country here, and the fact that there’s salmon at all is a testament to the fact that this place is wild, and it’s never lost that feeling.
But guiding and spending so much time on these rivers brings you up close to a species that’s fading. People come here to see an unspoiled place and a healthy ecosystem, but without salmon, that’s not a complete picture. Sometimes people get disappointed when I tell them I only rarely see salmon. But more often, people are shocked when I tell them there’s salmon here at all: they don’t realize it before they come to Idaho. Then I have to break their hearts by telling them there used to be 100 times as many as there are now. I’ve had people who, five minutes ago, didn’t know there were salmon here, and now they find out there are, but they’re on the edge of extinction. They get emotional about that. It almost seems cruel to tell them, but how else are we going to share the tragedy that’s happening here?
I moved to Salmon to really become a lifelong member of this river community. My wife’s here, we’re going to raise a family here. This town’s getting bigger, but not because of fish. There’s just not enough fish coming back to have a significant guiding or outfitting industry for them. People still love to fish for steelhead, but the seasons are short and people lose interest. If the Chinook or steelhead fishing were better, the economy here would blow up. We’d draw the wealthy anglers here that presently travel to Montana, Wyoming, and Utah for trout fishing. If there were more fish, we could give folks like that a real chance at a big ocean-going fish. Those people come to spend money: on guides, at fly shops, at hotels, at restaurants. That’d be a big deal for this town and all the others along the river. We’ve got a long way to go though. I went after steelhead pretty hard this spring. Hooked a couple, but not many.That inconsistency isn’t what you want for angling tourism – we just need more fish. Steelhead is not a novice or family-friendly fishery at all. It is a blood, sweat, and tears game. Maybe that’s part of why you’re not getting younger anglers into it, because if you’re going to be an angler as an adult, you need some level of success at some point. We’re losing that fishing culture here as a result – what’s a town like Salmon really about if there’s no more salmon?
On the first Middle Fork Salmon trip I ever guided, we found a 40 inch long male Chinook, all spawned out and dead in an eddy at the mouth of Little Soldier Creek. I got emotional, knowing everything that fish had to go through to get here: a year in the gravel growing up, a harrowing trip through eight dams to the ocean, years out there, and then a harder trip back all the way to this place, which is probably right where he was born. At that point I knew more about what these fish face in their struggle for existence, and that guy was one of the lucky ones that actually made it. I was super proud of this dead fish, floating in a random eddy.
Jonas Seiler hails from Steamboat Springs, Colorado and now lives in Salmon, Idaho. In the summer, he is a trip leader and river guide for Wilderness River Outfitters. In winter, he manages the Ridgeline and Stateline Yurts near Lost Trail Ski Area.
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