The California Fish and Game Commission voted unanimously Wednesday to shut down the Russian River to fishing in hopes of creating more favorable conditions for at-risk salmon and wild steelhead struggling months behind schedule to get upstream to spawn.
The move follows a recommendation made public last week by the state Department of Fish and Wildlife, which won widespread support from the angling community and environmentalists for the move.
It affects the main stem of the river from Jenner to the confluence with the river's east fork, north of Ukiah. The closure will remain in place through April 30, the tail end of the main spawning season.
But the fishing ban will not go into effect until it can be approved by the state Office of Administrative Law, likely around Feb. 23, Fish and Wildlife spokeswoman Jordan Traverso said.
That means fish that have waited in the lower reaches, sometimes for months, for rain and increased river flows to trigger their migration will remain at the mercy of those still eager to drop their lines for the next 2 1/2 weeks or so.
Traverso said state wildlife officials have no ability to enforce the closure in the meantime but trust anglers, among "the original conservationists," to protect the fishery they love.
"Overwhelmingly, they understand the need to close these waters and the pressure on the fish," she said. "They aren't bad actors just out to get theirs."
Yet local fishermen said it was likely that some anglers would continue to fish until someone official said they could not.
Others said they saw no problem with continued fishing until the ban takes effect, as long as only hatchery-born steelhead were targeted.
"I would assume that people are going to keep fishing until we can't fish anymore," said Clark Neely, of Guerneville.
Angling retailers said opinion was mixed among their clientele.
"We've had people who are glad it's closed, and can't wait for it to close," said Michael Williams, who works at the Outdoor Pro Shop in Cotati. "And we have fishermen who think, 'Well, the fish are in the river; why not go ahead and fish?'"
The Russian River closure is part of a larger effort to curtail fishing on numerous northern and central California streams where low flows caused by record-dry weather are putting anadromous fish at risk.
Locally the concern is wild steelhead and Chinook salmon, both federally listed as threatened, and, especially, coho salmon, which are endangered.
Experts say even if someone catches and releases them, it can stress the fish, some of which "are barely hanging on," one biologist said.
There are also concerns about wading anglers disrupting any eggs that may have been laid in the main river stem, which is running far below its usual wintertime levels.
"It's tough because it (fishing) is an addiction," said Scott Heemstra, manager at King's Sport & Tackle in Guerneville, which stands to lose about 80 percent or more of its seasonal business during the closure.
"I love to catch fish," Heemstra added. "But you have to kind of say, 'Hey. Let's not be greedy, because if we close it for two months, it's good for the fishery. If we don't close it and harm the fishery and continue to do it, the fishery is going to be gone."