RIGGINS, Idaho -- Sixty years ago Idaho Power put dams on the Snake River. Since the 60's fish hatcheries have helped reduce the impact of those dams on the native populations of Chinook Salmon and steelhead. But it's only been for the past 25 years that the utility company has kept track of the spawning native population.
Where the Big and Little Salmon Rivers roll together, you tend to get a decent assembly of anglers. "Yeah right here, this is super popular, down here fishing off city park by the boat ramp," said Steve Wilmeth, a guide for Mountain River Outfitters in Riggins.
And autumn is awesome for fishing in Riggins, Idaho.
"We've been catching fish this week. It's that time of year. Snow on the rim and the water is cooling, and it's prime time for us," said Roy Akins, the owner of Rapid River Outfitters.
His business brings in fishermen from all over. "Las Vegas, New Jersey. We have folks from Kansas, Alabama," said Akins.
So Akins' job is to secure steelhead and make everybody happy. That says a lot about the amount of fish that find their way back to this canyon each fall.
"Since I've lived here, you know, our runs are getting better and better and better," said Wilmeth.
But when your business can be altered by a slight adjustment in weather and water levels how can you predict a rate of return for future years?
Idaho Power has that covered.
Since 1991 the utility company that pulls power from the Snake River has made it a priority to keep track of the fish population that comes home to spawn in these waters.
Over those years this has been Phil Groves' job.
"I would sit in a helicopter with the door off, and we'd fly about 250-300 feet over water and we'd fly about 35 miles an hour, and I would just count redds as we fly up and down the river," said Groves, an Idaho Power fish biologist.
A redd is a nest made by an aging female salmon. And it's actually not red. "In this river it's a light-colored patch on a dark-colored river background," said Groves.
For the first time in 25 years Phil finds himself at the controls of a drone instead of hanging out the side of a helicopter in Hells Canyon, where the winds can whip up at a moment's notice.
"And we've had some instances where the winds have actually tried to push us down into the water," explained Groves.
Idaho Power's drone program started several years ago in conjunction with the helicopters. But Phil and his crew found counting from a camera could be more accurate and safer than a fly by.
Said Groves, "You lose a drone, you might be out a few thousand dollars, but you're not out a life."
So after sorting out some issues with the FAA, flying drones will be the future for Idaho Power. A sort-of pilot program, without the use of a pilot.
"We had a lot of folks in the region watching what we we're doing because we're the first ones to try it," said Groves.
They will cover 100 miles of the Snake River sampling 35 spawning sites in three days.
"No one knew how much habitat was available for these fish until we started working on 'em," said Groves. And back in 1991, Groves said, only about 700 adult fish made it this far upriver. "And we counted, in total, 42 nests throughout the Snake River basin that fall. Now we are counting upwards of 6000."
Results that are also being felt in the Salmon River. Something that hasn't gone unnoticed by Akins.
"It's an important part of the whole process to make sure there's fish here in the river that we can angle for and harvest. That way people are still fishing and aware of the situation of our wild fish," said Akins.
Idaho Power will take the video they shot with the drone back to Boise and use a program developed by the University of Idaho to come up with a total number of salmon beds in the Snake River. They say this year's low and warmer water will likely have an effect on the fish population years from now.