Skagit, Sauk Opening For Steelhead

Spring steelheading will open on parts of the Skagit and Sauk Rivers for the first time since 2009.

AN ANGLER CASTS A LINE ON THE SKAGIT RIVER AT THE MOUTH OF THE SAUK EARLIER THIS YEAR BEFORE FISHING CLOSED AFTER JAN. 31. (CHASE GUNNELL)

Federal overseers this morning signed off on a permit allowing the state to hold the catch-and-release fishery on the big North Cascades waters over this and the coming four seasons.

“This is the most important fishery in the state to me,” said angler Ryley Fee, who was getting an early head start on the weekend. “I’m leaving tonight.”

Per WDFW HQ, here are this year’s regs:

* Open dates: April 14-15, 18-22, 25-29
*
Skagit River: Open from the Dalles Bridge in Concrete to the Cascade River Road Bridge in Marblemount. Fishing from boat under power prohibited.
*
Sauk River: Open from the mouth to the Sauk Prairie Road Bridge in Darrington. Fishing from a boat equipped with an internal combustion motor is prohibited.
*
Single-point barbless hooks
*
Night closures in effect
*
Use of bait prohibited

In a press release, regional fisheries manager Edward Eleazer advised anglers to keep an eye on his agency’s emergency rule-change notice page, as an early closure and additional restrictions might still be applied to the fishery.

“Anglers have an incredible opportunity to fish for wild steelhead on one of the renowned rivers of the West Coast,” Eleazer said. “To ensure there will be steelhead fishing in the basin for years to come, we’re asking anglers to comply with all fishery rules and to help keep the river free of litter.”

The opening is the culmination of years of lobbying by Occupy Skagit, which ironically had just recently given up hope the rivers would reopen in time this month.

According to Eleazar, cooperation from the Skagit tribes was also “essential” in getting the permit. WDFW also reports that tribal fishermen will not hold their “scheduled steelhead fisheries this year in order to limit fishery impacts.”

I don’t think I can express how huge and important of a deal that is — hat tip to the Swinomish, Sauk-Suiattles and Upper Skagits, I appreciate it.

Ultimate approval hinged on National Marine Fisheries Service regional administrator Barry Thom giving the final OK to the proposed fisheries.

“The key is that we believe the comanagers found the right balance between allowing some fishing opportunities and protecting Skagit River steelhead for the future,” said federal spokesman Michael Milstein. “The improved resilience of Skagit steelhead is a positive reflection on the many partnerships and hard work that has gone into habitat restoration and other recovery actions.”

The popular spring recreational season was halted in 2010 by a series of low forecasted returns and then written out of the regulations pamphlet because WDFW didn’t have a permit to open it due to the 2007 listing of Puget Sound steelhead.

But the past three years have averaged over 8,000 spawners, though the 2018 run is expected to be down yet still within fishable numbers.

“Stay of my rock,” joked Fee, as the fishery likely will draw a good crowd due to pent-up demand.

Under the approved plan, state managers will monitor the rivers, taking creel data. Those staffers had been ready since late winter, but the approval process has dragged on and on.

“We all would have liked to issue a decision sooner but the great value of the Skagit population required us to do a careful and complete job, and that took time,” said Milstein. “We appreciate everyone’s patience with us, and we ask for continued support as we continue toward recovery of these fish that have so much meaning to so many people across the region.”

Not every Westside angler agreed with reopening the rivers, but it provides an opportunity on a strong stock in a region where steelhead fisheries are rarer and rarer as hatchery releases tapered off and habitat issues come home to roost.

“Anglers are keenly aware of the condition of our wild steelhead rivers and can be powerful advocates for their conservation,” Trout Unlimited’s Rob Masonis said in a press release. “If we want healthy, productive rivers with resilient wild steelhead, we need to keep anglers on the water when wild steelhead populations can handle it.”

Even if I don’t have a chance to hit the Sauk and Skagit before the end of this month, I’m looking forward more than ever to 2019’s full late winter-spring season!

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