A Few Thoughts On The Great Steelie Smolt Shenanigan

Ultimately it may go down as just a thumb in the eye of the Wild Fish Conservancy, but this week’s surreptitious stocking of something like 25,000 hatchery steelhead into the Snoqualmie is getting thumbs-up, likes and eliciting chuckles of delight from some folks.

The Duvall-based group sued WDFW over these early-returning winter smolts and those being raised in other Pugetropolis hatcheries, and in an out-of-court settlement reached late last month, 80 percent of the steelhead set to be released this spring are going to instead be turned out into lakes.

Around 300,000 are being trucked clear across Washington to Sprague Lake to bolster its resurgent trout fishery.

But then sometime late Monday night or early Tuesday morning, somebody had a different idea. Steelhead, they might have been thinking, are meant for rivers, not to live with catfish and coots.

Perhaps illuminated by the light of the near-full moon shining overhead, a person or persons cut their way into the Tokul Creek fish hatchery and lifted a screen that allowed roughly a sixth of the eager-to-get-out-of-dodge smolts there to head down into the Snoqualmie and out to sea.

Last night, the song that had replayed itself relentlessly in my head all day yesterday switched to a tune from my youth … “Just’a good ol’ boys …”

That is not to condone whatsoever what was in fact a burglary, vandalism and, in essence, bucket biology with silver fish instead of the usual green ones.

Breaking the law is not a good way to keep or get the public on board with your cause, and we’ve got real claim to the white hat and horse here.

But the act was also symbolic of the anger that the settlement and the Wild Fish Conservancy’s misguided lawsuit has stirred in the region’s steelheading community.

In fact, it’s almost surprising that tampering didn’t happen elsewhere first.

One person I called about the incident initially thought it might have occurred up at Kendall Creek, where local anglers have for 30-plus years paid for the raising of as many as 50,000 smolts for release into the North Fork Nooksack.

Those guys care so much that for the first time ever last winter, they organized a collection effort to make sure that enough returning adults made it to the hatchery to meet eggtake goals and keep the river open later for fishing.

That’s investment in fish and a fishery.

That’s Doing Something instead of filing lawsuits and claiming you’re being harmed by the mere presence of hatchery fish in a river — as if they’re girl germs or something — and waving a wand and pretending like today’s massively altered habitat can somehow support 1914’s steelhead populations.

With the settlement and until WDFW gets a federal permit for its Chambers Creek program, those anglers’ hard work on the North Nooksack will be for naught. No smolts will be released there or on the Skagit-Cascade, North Fork Stilly, Wallace, Snoqualmie, Green and Dungeness.

Only 180,000 from Reiter Ponds on the Skykomish will be let go for fishing in winter 2015-16.

The boys in Everson and Deming, Sedro-Woolley and Rockport, Arlington and Darrington, hell even Duvall and other small river towns will otherwise be sitting at home watching college hoops that season — and possibly for a lot longer when it comes to the Skagit, which won’t be stocked for 12 damn years.

Talk about real, measurable harm to guides and local economies.

True, 25,000 smolts into the Snoqualmie probably won’t result in a fishery to blog much about, but Tokul Hatchery has a rich history in our world, so maybe it’s not so surprising the incident happened there.

When we first started this magazine, Northwest Sportsman, WDFW was considering making the Snoqualmie the state’s first wild steelhead gene bank, imperiling the future of the old hatchery.

Ken McLeod Jr., whose family name is among the most hallowed in Westside steelheading — Skykomish Sunrise, anyone — bristled.

“That hatchery has always been a sportsman’s hatchery,” he told me.

I don’t know who let those fish at Tokul go, but it’s not the first act of apparent civil disobedience that has occurred at a Washington fish hatchery.

In spring 1989, 20,000 smolts being raised for release into the Toutle River perished when someone drained the water but left the screen in, trapping the fish in a dewatered holding pond, a $10,000 hit, according to an article in the Moscow-Pullman Daily News.

Who would do such a thing? Again, it beats me, but recently, the North Toutle and its tributary, the Green, became the state’s second wild steelhead gene bank (the first was the Sol Duc where a guide-run broodstock program was shut down by WDFW). Hatchery releases on a system that had been remarkably productive for how few smolts were let go, will end as of this spring.

Even as we sportsmen sometimes overlook seriously good fisheries and hunts in recent years, as other opportunities are reduced, more and more tree farms charge for access, our elk are lamed by a mysterious condition, the drum can seem to relentlessly pound out doom, doom, doom to our way of life.

And I think we are right to be angry about the situation with Puget Sound’s steelhead fisheries, which are a shadow of the shadow of their former selves.

Who’s to blame?

* WDFW leadership for not having the federal permits in hand to operate its Chambers program and endangering a fishery rich with heritage and memories;

* National Marine Fisheries Service brass for falling down on processing the paperwork that would have allowed that program to continue;

* And the Wild Fish Conservancy for their ridiculous, low-hanging-fruit lawsuit, filed in the face of major changes to hatchery and fishing operations by WDFW to protect native runs.

But why didn’t WFC go after the similarly unpermitted Skamania program on the Sky and Stilly, a stock of fish well known to stray? Or Puget Sound hatchery Chinook?

I’ll tell you my theories: Their buddies like fly fishing for those summers, and some folks around here who know a little about civil disobedience and fish wars might have had something to say about killing the kings, in loud tones at close range.

And why did they agree to allow continued releases of Skykomish winters when in fact the Skagit and Nooksack programs are cleaner, i.e., even lower rates of straying by hatchery fish onto wild redds?

What are their true motives anyway?

As it stands, the illicit release at Tokul doesn’t affect the settlement with the state, WDFW believes, but to guard against it from happening again, the agency has hired private security to make sure nobody else clambers over the fences, cuts locks, etc.

Probably won’t happen.

The point’s been made.

You reap what you sow.

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