The Steelhead Permit Lottery?

As Washington hunters rush to put in for their chance to hunt deer and elk with rifles, muzzleloaders and bows by the end of this month and later this spring will file their applications to draw into special permit hunts, the idea of a wild steelhead fishing lottery was raised on a regional radio show.

“There’s no sanctuary … You gotta give these fish a break if you want to keep the quality fishing going,” said Northwest Wild Country cohost Bill Herzog during the latter half of a passionate 40-minute conversation on last Saturday’s show.

Off the air he had described to fellow hosts Joel Shangle and Nick Petosa that the day before the Hoh had looked more like the Cowlitz, one of the region’s most productive but also crowded hatchery steelhead rivers.

It was a hard thing to take for a man who is one of the deans of West Coast steelheading and whose expertise with the species has graced all three regional salmon and steelhead mags over the years, including ours of late.

And it’s not like he’s in favor of handing out limited numbers of permits to fish certain sections of rivers at certain times, but he’s also seen the collapse of steelhead streams in Pugetropolis over the years and worries about rising pressure on the OlyPen and continued kill there.

“Stream crowding is not good for anybody,” Herzog said.

And anybody would also include the fish.

The discussion began on Washington’s limited retention fisheries for wild steelhead out on the Peninsula and was going to talk about handling rules, but then … well, take a listen for yourself here and tell us how you feel.

KILLIN' IT ON THE HOH -- WDFW CATCH DATA FOR THE OLYPEN RIVER THIS WINTER SHOWS A SURGE LAST WEEKEND IN ANGLER PRESSURE. A WDFW CREEL SAMPLER SAYS THAT, AS USUAL, TWO CHECKERS WERE ON THE RIVER AND THE WEATHER WAS GOOD WHILE MORE NORTHERLY OLYPEN STREAMS SAW BELOW NORMAL FLOWS WHICH MAY HAVE PUSHED MORE ANGLERS SOUTH. (WDFW)

In some ways, Herzog’s arguments reminded me of parts of an interview I did in late fall 2009 with another longtime Olympic Peninsula steelheader (and which never saw print):

Twilight For A Forks Steelheader

A couple months before Dick Wentworth sent in his 2007-08 catch card, he hung up his rod and reel and quit steelheading.

It wasn’t exactly what I expected to hear when I called the Forks, Wash., man earlier this fall to ask about the secret to his wild success for an article in our November issue. He was among the 17 anglers statewide who turned in a full punchcard that season.

But rather than politely hang up, I held the line – and got an earful.

“The last time I fished was January or February two years ago,” Wentworth says. “Perfect water. No fish. Perfect water. That leaves you cold. I know how to cast. They aren’t there, boys. They aren’t behind the rocks.”

HE SAYS THOSE WORDS with a finality that can only come from long years of knowing the rivers.

Now 70, his roots here (Wentworth Lake, anyone?) stretch back at least four generations, if not more – he claims some Indian blood. He’s been fishing since he was 8 years old, but transitioned into flyrodding in his teens.

“It became too easy. It was nothing to catch fish on eggs,” he says.

He’d heard about how local school teacher Syd Glasso was experimenting with spey flies (think the Heron series and Sol Duc patterns).

“‘That’s neat,’ I thought, so I knocked on his door and asked, ‘How do you do that?’”

Pretty soon Wentworth found himself in Glasso’s kitchen helping the icon rewrap fly lines with lead to get the big patterns down to where the fish were in the cold waters of the Peninsula, according to fly fishing writer Doug Rose.

And he took to the tying bench himself. Winter-run steelhead, springers, summer-runs, fall Chinook, sea-run cutts, surf perch, you name it, if it swims anywhere on the North Coast, it’s bit for the retired telephone employee.

“In the 1950s, it was nothing to have four-, five-, six-(steelhead) mornings on the fly,” he says.

That painting of a big 20-plus-pounder about to hit a fly above the checkout line at the Forks Thriftway? It’s based on one of Wentworth’s notable catches.

He’s landed so many, he says he can tell the differences between steelhead running up the Sol Duc, Hoh and Queets.

That earns him something like “Yeah, sure, kooky Old Man” reactions from biologists.

Or maybe that’s because of his unvarnished opinion on today’s Bogachiel River hatchery steelhead: “They’re not a fish, they’re a rag.”

A RAG ISN’T SOMETHING someone like Dick Wentworth seems like he’d be willing to fish for.

But there’s more to why he hung it all up after a long, successful career.

“I gave up because of all the pressure. You can’t just keep piling on them and expect them to be behind every rock,” he says.

He says there are many factors why the fish don’t return like they used to: a “sick” Pacific, “more anglers, nets, guides, our runs declined, seasons now run year-round.”

Then there’s side-drifting: “It’s so effective, it’s not even funny.”

He would ban bait and make anglers get out of their boats to fish.

And while he says his own rule-change proposals in the past have gone nowhere with the state, shorter retention seasons for wild steelhead and more conservative gear rules for Peninsula rivers are actually among the ideas the Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife is mulling for 2010-12 seasons.

Comments will be taken at a public hearing with the Fish & Wildlife Commission this weekend, Dec. 4-5, in Olympia.

In the meanwhile, Wentworth will watch as another winter run starts up the Calawah behind his house, but instead of picking up his fly rod, he’ll be making archery equipment and firing off verbal arrows when reporters come calling.

“There are a lot of things against us,” Wentworth says. “We need to figure out what we can do to improve things for the kids coming up. If we don’t, you’re going to miss out. It’s not going to be there for you.”

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3 thoughts on “The Steelhead Permit Lottery?”

  1. Bravo! We need to get back to limited seasons, ban bait, and get people out of their boats. And a lottery isn’t a bad idea either–just like hunting.

    As for C&R only, be careful. C&R is a sadistic act. It would be more ethical, in my opinion, to allow one dead fish, but limit the number of tags to that which would be sustainable.

    I’m very impressed to see this thoughtful discussion in NW Sportsman! Well done, gentlemen.

  2. Thanks for yer comments, Chaveecha.

    I would point out that NWS is not necessarily in favor of going to a permitted entry system for wild steelhead streams — the enforcement problems for WDFW game wardens is just the start, and as guide Nick Petosa points out on Facebook, that would just push more boats onto non-permit-required waters.

    But as we all flail around looking for solutions that A) help the fish and B) allow continued fishing, it was an idea that I thought was worth discussing.

    Hopefully marine survival will turn around from this long-term coastwide slump — I was told yesterday by a bio who attended that recent steelhead symposium that there are some good signs for Oregon, BC and Alaska, but it’s too early to tell if there’s also something positive going on for the WA Coast.

    Let’s cross our fingers — maybe we don’t even have to consider the ideas broached on the radio — but also continue noodling positives as well as negatives of any permit system.

  3. I just appreciate your continued willingness to stand up for the fish, and to ask the right questions. We need someone with your guts down here in Oregon. As it stands, our gear-oriented writers refuse to take off their blinders.

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