The Tucannon River, once a productive Blue Mountains foothills steelhead fishery that dropped way off, is poised for recovery.
By Andy Walgamott
Perhaps it’s the Okanogan mule deer hunter in me – the part that screams to be afield, rifle in hand, as sun sets on October’s season in hopes of bagging a moss-horned Pasayten migrator – that makes it easy to grasp Chris Donley’s advice for when to fish the Tucannon River for steelhead these days:
“Fish as late as the season allows,” tips the veteran Southeast Washington steelheader and regional Department of Fish and Wildlife fisheries manager. “Most of the fish will enter on the next warm-up/freshet, so sometime between now and late February.”
ONCE UPON A TIME, STEELHEADERS KNEW THE TUCANNON AS A FINE FALL FISHERY – IN 2011, THE RIVER’S SECOND BEST SEASON SINCE AT LEAST THE NIXON ADMINISTRATION IF NOT WELL BEYOND, IT YIELDED 563 IN OCTOBER, AND MORE THAN 300 IN THE MONTHS ON EITHER SIDE OF THAT. BUT THE SEASONS THAT FOLLOWED WOULD SEE A SHARP DROP AS THE BROODSTOCK CHANGED AND THREE CONSECUTIVE YEARS SAW NO RELEASES OF HATCHERY FISH. “WE USED TO LOVE FISHING THAT RIVER, BUT FOR SOME REASON, DIDN’T THINK IT FISHED WELL ANYMORE,” RECALLED FLY FISHING GUIDE DAVID CHILD OF YAKIMA. “MY FISHING BUDDIES [THAT’S JASON MCCORMICK WITH A PAIR] AND I HAVEN’T BEEN BACK FOR YEARS.” STATE MANAGERS HOPE TO CHANGE THAT BY GETTING OUT THE WORD THAT THE TUC’S A LATE WINTER RIVER NOW. (DAVID CHILD)
Now, if that doesn’t gel with your understanding of this northern Columbia County fishery, you would not be alone. Recent years have seen some changes with the Tuc.
Washington steelheading is in a state of serious flux and perhaps no river exemplifies that better than the Tucannon.
• Where once this Snake River tributary was stocked with out-of-basin summer-run smolts, the progeny of native fish from the valley now fire the hatchery program.
• Where for three straight years no harvestable fish were released, they are once again.
• What once was a fall fishery now is a late winter stream.
• Where all those changes led to the impression that the Tuc wasn’t worth fishing anymore, there actually are fish to be caught and kept.
Now, this is not to say the Tucannon’s going to be en fuego this month – it’s not, this season’s A-run is low and the smolt release for return this year was just 50,000 – but going forward, late winter is going to be when to start hitting this small river.
REINTRODUCING THE TUC
In case you are unfamiliar with the Tucannon, it rises on the north slope of Washington’s Blue Mountains, that great heap of basalt, and cuts northwesterly across the northern edge of the rugged Wenaha-Tucannon Wilderness Area. Not far beyond that it takes a hard right-hand turn and flows past the chain lakes in the W.T. Wooten Wildlife Area, one of WDFW’s oldest properties, then makes a gradual leroy and exits its canyon into an open valley. Where its cousin on the other side of Washington’s Blues, the Grande Ronde, carves a serpentine course, the Tucannon has dug itself a fairly quick path to reach the Snake at Lyons Ferry. (Tucannon is a Nez Perce word for “digging.”)
THE TUCANNON AS IT EXITS THE BLUE MOUNTAINS. (SNAKE RIVER RECOVERY BOARD, VIA NMFS)
Along this journey, the river is paralleled high up by Forest Service roads, then Tucannon Road, briefly by U.S. 12, and finally Highway 261 in its lower reach on either side of Starbuck. Note we said Starbuck, singular. This town is not named for the ubiquitous coffee chain, nor the first mate on the Pequod, but a long-forgotten railroad official.
There used to be a tackle shop in Starbuck that dispensed with fine advice, but Darcy Linklater tells me they closed Darver Tackle last May. With the Lyons Ferry KOA also shuttered till March, that means you should bring all the fishing gear you need because local supplies are tight.
Speaking of tight, so is access to the Tucannon, but there are a couple nice long stretches to get on the river. The lowest is at the mouth, the Army Corps of Engineers’ 390-acre Tucannon Habitat Management Unit. It encompasses about a mile of water, mostly below 261, but a bit above. Parking is near where slackwater begins, depending on height of the Lower Monumental Pool, and there’s an outhouse there as well.
The second stretch to check out is at Smith Hollow Road, where a kind farmer allows access to the river. Linklater says to watch for the 2-by-2 mini fridge sitting on the fence along 261; register there to fish upstream of the bridge, on the other side of the Tucannon RV Park.
Local game warden Brendan Vance says there are a few local landowners who will give permission, either verbal or written, to access the river as well.
The upstream deadline of the steelhead fishery is Turner Road,
TIMING THE TUCANNON
At the top of this piece, you’ll have noticed that Donley said that “most of the fish” will be entering the river this month, as conditions moderate. That advice is based on passive integrated transponder, or PIT, tag data that shows how switching from the old Lyons Ferry broodstock – which originated from Wells Hatchery in North-central Washington – several years ago to a localized broodstock also radically altered when returning adults enter the river.
According to sonar arrays near the mouth, Lyons Ferry fish stormed in in late summer and by December 1, 70 percent were in the river.
“That big blue hump is why the Tucannon fished so well in October, November, December,” says Donley, referring to a graph put together by WDFW research scientist Joe Bumgarner in Dayton that shows the arrival of the old stock as a blue line.
A CHART PUT TOGETHER BY STATE FISHERIES BIOLOGISTS BASED ON PIT-TAGGED STEELHEAD PINGING A SONAR ARRAY AT THE MOUTH OF THE TUCANNON SHOWS THE SHARP DIFFERENCE BETWEEN WHEN THE OLD LYONS FERRY HATCHERY STOCK FISH –BLUE LINE – RETURNED TO THE RIVER AND WHEN THE NEW IN-BASIN HATCHERY STEELHEAD – ORANGE LINE – ARRIVE. THE RIVER CLOSES TO FISHING MARCH 1 TO PROTECT WILD STEELHEAD, BUT THIS DATA WILL HELP SHOW FEDERAL FISHERY OVERSEERS THE BENEFITS OF REOPENING THE TUCANNON TO HARVEST CLIPPED FISH, BOTH LOCALS AND STRAYS. (WDFW)
But the times, they have a-changed.
“If you’re fishing like you used to in October, November and December, there aren’t any fish in the system,” he notes.
The same graph shows that the new in-basin stock more closely echoes the wild run, with just 20 percent of the overall return in the river by Jan. 1, 30 percent by Feb. 1, and somewhere around 45 percent by March 1.
March 1, however, is when the Tucannon closes, meaning more than half of the hatchery steelhead won’t have been available for harvest this season.
This has not gone unnoticed by WDFW.
“We are working with NOAA to get the necessary permit coverage to open it longer,” Donley says. “Having said that, the wheels of government turn slowly and we don’t expect to have that extension before next year.”
THE BIG CHANGE
NOAA is, of course, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and its National Marine Fisheries Service, NMFS, is the reason the Tucannon’s hatchery program has seen a big transition through the years.
Into the 1970s, sportfishing here was dependent solely on wild steelhead, with 2,000 or more believed to have been annually harvested as late as the ’50s, according to WDFW. As you can imagine, dams, habitat and harvest all led to the run tanking, and so hatchery production began. In the late ’90s, however, steelhead throughout the Snake system were listed under the Endangered Species Act, and with that came scrutiny from NMFS about WDFW’s use of Lyons Ferry fish as hatchery broodstock. To make a long story short, while production with those steelhead continued, unclipped smolts from a wild-based broodstock began to be released in 2000 as part of a five-year test. However, after half a decade “there wasn’t enough information to determine” if that strain could replace the Lyons Ferry stock, according to WDFW. So, another five-year test was ordered, and then four years into it NMFS asked for a new hatchery genetic management plan, then said it wouldn’t authorize any more releases of Lyons Ferry fish.
“Luckily, by 2010, we had enough information to determine that the ‘test’ program was successful in returning adults to support not only the sport fishery, but also to maintain a conservation component of the program to help support the depressed wild origin population,” three WDFW biologists write in a paper entitled “Where Have All The Tucannon Steelhead Gone? And What Is WDFW Doing To Fix It?” It can be found in the Tri-State Steelheader’s spring 2016 newsletter (tristatesteelheaders.com).
Thus began the phase-out of one stock and phasing in of another, but there was a hiccup. Promises of additional space at Lyons Ferry hatchery didn’t come to fruition, according to WDFW, and so no fin-clipped steelhead were released into the Tucannon in 2011, 2012 or 2013.
The result of all that is that harvest went from more than 1,600 in 2011 – the second highest take back through at least 1968, state stats show – to just 132 in the 2014-15 season, the fewest in 30 years.
With such a miserable season, it’s no wonder why anglers have given up on the little river.
“Because of no harvestable releases from 2011-2013, and that word spread that ‘no’ hatchery fish were being released anymore, the angling pressure was almost non-existent this past fall/winter – something we would like to see changed,” write the state biologists, Todd Miller, Joe Bumgarner and Jeremy Trump.
Here’s where things stand now: WDFW’s goal is to raise 100,000 smolts a year for release, with half of those being fin-clipped for harvest. It’s possible the agency could in the future rear more, but that depends on a lot of moving parts. (Millions of dollars are being spent on habitat work in and along the Tucannon for spring Chinook restoration.) In the meanwhile, this month should see a push of one- and two-salt steelies into the river. The biologists acknowledge that this season might not be that great, but they’ve got their eye on the future.
“All of these changes to the steelhead fishery on the Tucannon were unexpected and we realize it may take some time before our efforts are successful,” the trio write, “but ultimately we would like to see the steelhead fishery on the Tucannon return to previous levels, with lots of angler effort and harvest. But we can’t do that without your help.”
They’re asking anglers to return to the river, keep all hatchery fish (retention is mandatory), and tell fellow fishermen that once again harvestable steelhead are returning to the Tucannon.
In late winter.
TUCANNON RIVER STEELHEAD. (DAVID CHILD)
As for how to fish the river, it’s really no different than other steelhead streams. Where there’s deeper, slower water, like at the mouth, try a shrimp-tipped jig under a bobber. Where there’s current across a flat, swing a spoon. Find drift fishing water, run a Corky and eggs through it. Bait’s legal, though you’ll need to crimp your barbs.
Trump, the biologist, says that it won’t take much to spur the steelies into biting, just an increase in air temps and flow.
“As we move into late January and February the fishing should pick up, and those fish that are currently holding will begin to move upstream with increases in flow,” he says.
One thing to watch will be flows out of Pataha Creek, below Highway 12, which can make things muddy as these wheatlands begin to thaw, Trump tips. Gauges for both the Tucannon and Pataha can be found at waterdata.usgs.gov/wa/nwis/rt and through ecy.wa.gov/index.html, respectively.
Daily limit is two hatchery steelhead, as well as 15 whitefish. NS