Officials with the state Department of Fish and Wildlife are recommending the move as part of a package of emergency regulations to help lessen the threat to fish already struggling to survive and spawn in extremely low-flow conditions around Northern and Central California.
The appointed five-member commission, which meets in Sacramento, can approve, ignore or alter the proposal.
"We can't make it rain," but reducing the pressure of continued fishing may encourage survival against the odds, department spokeswoman Jordan Traverso said.
She said the measure was aimed especially at protecting adult fish attempting to move upriver to spawn.
The proposal has drawn mixed reaction from anglers, though they generally support it. Some say the critically dry conditions and confined fish have given them more than enough reasons to pull their lines.
Others say the complete ban unnecessarily restricts those going after hatchery-raised steelhead, which are raised to provide a sport fishery.
"On one hand, it would do the fish a lot of good to have no pressure on them, especially in the low water situation," said Bruce MacDonell, president of the roughly 80-member Russian River Wild Steelhead Society, whose mission includes enhancement of the river ecosystem. "On the other hand, our system has two hatcheries built on it, as you know, as mitigation, and they make fish for sport fishing. So where do you draw the line?"
Record low rainfall and an effort to retain storage in regional reservoirs has cut flows in the Russian River and area tributaries so significantly that protected chinook and coho salmon and wild steelhead have been largely unable to reach their spawning grounds this year.
Where normally they would enter the river in November or December and move quickly upstream, many have remained in the lower reaches of the river waiting for nature to trigger further migration.
Mariska Obedzinski, a biologist with the UC Cooperative Extension coho salmon monitoring project, said a tagged 2-year-old coho recorded in the lower river Nov. 11 was picked up again a few days ago only a short distance upstream.
"So over two months it's been waiting," she said.
In addition to creating a logistical impediment to reproduction, the delay also means that salmon -#8212; which spawn in the last part of their life cycle -#8212; are growing more vulnerable each day, Obedzinski said.
As they wait in streams, natural predators, like seals and raptors, can pick them off.
"The more stress, the higher the chance that they're not going to survive long enough to make it up to their tributaries, if they do eventually open," Obedzinski said.
Rumors of the Russian River closure had already begun circulating before the wildlife agency announced its recommendations Wednesday, along with closures of several Northern California rivers, including large stretches of the Eel River.
Overall, the proposal appears to have widespread support among longtime anglers who have observed sufficiently dire conditions that it has dampened their interest in taking advantage of easy pickings.
"It's like fish in a barrel," said Guerneville general contractor Tom Niclaes. "I haven't fished in a week and a half just because I just don't feel right about it. It's not like 'I'm going fishing.' I'm going catching."
Several area fishermen described scenes of fish holed up by the dozens in pools along the lower part of river, attracting crowds of anglers.