Washington steelhead overseers have voted to end the retention of wild winter-runs on the last eight WDFW-regulated streams it’s allowed on, part of a momentous set of changes affecting most of the state’s last best stocks.
Starting next season, all unclipped steelhead must be released on the Bogachiel, Calawah, Clearwater, Dickey, Hoh, Quillayute, upper Quinault and Sol Duc Rivers, where anglers have been able to keep a single one annually.
Also on those streams, the Fish and Wildlife Commission banned treble and barbed hooks, reduced bait fishing to waters and months where hatchery fish are present and ended retention of rainbow trout, among other tweaks as it set rules last Friday for the 2016-17 season and which take effect July 1.
While cooperation from coastal tribes on harvest issues will be needed to realize maximum effect, proponents applauded the citizen panel’s decision, calling it a big victory for the fish.
“Wild steelhead face many hurdles on their way to the spawning grounds. Limiting our impact as anglers is an important step to protecting these fish,” said Wild Steelheaders United in a thank-you message to supporters.
“The commission’s decision to implement these rule changes comes at a critical time as wild steelhead populations on Washington’s famed Olympic Peninsula slip toward collapse. The status quo has been failing our wild steelhead for years. However, today’s decision marks a stark change of course and signals a shared desire to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past,” posted the Wild Steelhead Coalition.
The new regulations were boiled down from more sweeping changes that were initially proposed and run through WDFW’s North Coast Steelhead Advisory Group, comprised of Forks guides, Seattle-area anglers and others.
Following public comment, they were approved unanimously by the nine-member citizen panel.
Still, not everyone agrees with the changes. In a news link he posted widely about the commission’s vote, Terry Wiest of Steelhead University used the headline “Terrible news for sports anglers,” sparking many comments.
Asked to expand on that afterwards, Wiest actually called ending wild steelhead retention “long overdue” and said he didn’t have a problem with barbless hooks only, which are easier to remove from a fish’s mouth, requiring less handling.
But while he didn’t mind forgoing the chance to fish with sand shrimp or eggs outside hatchery-run timing (generally October through mid-February), he said setting up a test no-boat-fishing zone on the upper Hoh River between Morgan’s Crossing and Olympic National Park “crossed the line.”
Worrying about how it might affect mobility-challenged anglers and pointing to injuries he himself suffered getting out of a boat while fighting a fish, Wiest suggested it sets a precedent that may be taken to more rivers, not to mention bars the most effective ways to hook trophy winter-runs.
“This eliminates many of the best techniques that guides use to get their clients on fish. It also impacts the tackle companies, especially those that produce plugs,” he said. “No more pulling plugs, no more side-drifting, no more free drifting, no more bobber-doggin’.”
West End rivers are renown as the place to go in Washington to catch big wild winter steelhead, and as Buzz Ramsey of Yakima Bait writes in the January 2016 issue of Northwest Sportsman, one of the most effective ways to hook a trophy is with a plug.
Most effectively used from a boat, with their fish-annoying shimmy, the lures have the unique ability to get large aggressive bucks to bite, though are not the sole way to catch them, as expert jig and spoon fishermen will attest.
Before their vote, Commissioner Miranda Wecker said that the boat ban was portrayed to fellow board members as the most controversial of the steelheading proposals, as well as a pilot project.
“It could have gone either way, but we need to try new strategies to get us out of this position,” said the Naselle resident and longest-serving commissioner.
Wecker said the citizen panel is taking a “portfolio approach” to steelhead management, one that also includes gene banks and hatchery production.
Behind the scenes, she’s also been working on a “guidance” document to address larger questions such as escapement goals, guiding and dealing with pressure on the rivers, enforcement and comanagment.
Even as those policies are still being shaped in a commission subcommittee, Wecker says the retention ban passed “because so much of the public was ready for it.”
The end of steelhead harvest in Washington has been coming for awhile, what with massive habitat alteration, overfishing, declining returns, run failures and increasing advocacy for native stocks.
The last season to kill unclipped winter-runs in Puget Sound rivers came in the early 2000s when returns to the Sky, Stilly and Skagit began dipping below escapement goals.
Numbers have since increased on the Skagit to above spawning benchmarks, but the trend was clear.
In 2004, the Fish and Wildlife Commission adopted a two-year statewide harvest moratorium for the 2004-05 season, then reversed itself, but said only one a year could be taken on 11 OlyPen rivers (plus unmarked summer-runs on King County’s Green).
That allowance has gradually been reduced to just the eight rivers in late winter and early spring.
According to the most recent WDFW catch estimates available, in February and March 2015 at least:
66 unmarked winter steelhead were kept on the Sol Duc;
17 unmarked winter steelhead were kept on the Calawah;
58 unmarked winter steelhead were kept on the Bogachiel;
28 unmarked winter steelhead were kept on the Quillayute;
87 unmarked winter steelhead were kept on the Hoh below Highway 101;
12 unmarked winter steelhead were kept on the Clearwater;
and nine unmarked winter steelhead were kept on the Quinault above the lake.
By the most recent complete stats for the late winter and early spring fishery, WDFW estimates that in 2014:
162 unmarked winter steelhead were kept on the Sol Duc;
30 unmarked winter steelhead were kept on the Calawah;
78 unmarked winter steelhead were kept on the Bogachiel;
30 unmarked winter steelhead were kept on the Quillayute;
9 unmarked winter steelhead were kept on the Dickey;
23 unmarked winter steelhead were kept on the upper Hoh;
78 unmarked winter steelhead were kept on the lower Hoh;
8 unmarked winter steelhead were kept on the Queets;
41 unmarked winter steelhead were kept on the Clearwater;
3 unmarked winter steelhead were kept on the Salmon;
and 15 unmarked winter steelhead were kept on the upper Quinault.
For comparison, going back a decade to the 2003-04 season:
852 unmarked winter steelhead were kept on the Sol Duc;
177 unmarked winter steelhead were kept on the Calawah;
645 unmarked winter steelhead were kept on the Bogachiel;
266 unmarked winter steelhead were kept on the Quillayute;
30 unmarked winter steelhead were kept on the Dickey;
781 unmarked winter steelhead were kept on the lower Hoh;
109 unmarked winter steelhead were kept on the Queets;
164 unmarked winter steelhead were kept on the Clearwater;
143 unmarked winter steelhead were kept on the Salmon;
and 187 unmarked winter steelhead were kept on the upper Quinault.
“I know some of the people in Forks aren’t going to be happy about this,” acknowledged Wecker, “but … there was some support too. It’s not like it was 10 years ago.”
Or during the 1970s when she dabbled in the sport while working for the U.S. Forest Service out of the town whose economy has long been dominated by a reliance on natural resources.
The caveat in all this is how Olympic Peninsula tribes will respond to the end of sport wild steelhead retention.
Will it be considered a foregone opportunity by the state to capitalize on? Will netting levels stay where they’re at? Will the commission’s move help start a conversation with tribal leaders about the future of the iconic species?
That last one is Wecker’s hope.
She says she understands it’s “an uphill battle to get wild steelhead to the gravel because of the potential for tribes” to end up harvesting them instead, but “it puts us in a position” to say the state is doing something.
On the flip side, some in the wild fish advocacy world are directly and indirectly threatening hatchery production, which would impact tribal harvest.
Steelhead weren’t the only issue on the Fish and Wildlife Commission’s agenda last Friday and Saturday.
WDFW reported the panel also signed off on:
Eliminating size restrictions and daily limits for eastern brook trout in most western Washington streams and crappie in several western Washington lakes.
Removing rules limiting anglers to keeping only two trout that are larger than 14 inches in several western Washington lowland lakes. WDFW is stocking these lakes with larger trout, making the requirement unnecessary.
Providing trout-fishing opportunities in sections of several streams currently closed to fishing.
The commission did not, however, adopt a proposal to close a portion of the North Fork Nooksack River near the Kendall Creek Hatchery. Commissioners asked fishery managers to evaluate other potential options to clarify fishing boundaries at the mouth of Kendall Creek, which meanders at different times of the year.
The commission also did not include Summit Lake (Thurston County) in a list of lakes that will be open for fishing year-round. Instead, the commission maintained the current season at the lake, where anglers can fish from the fourth Saturday in April through Oct. 31.