Steelheaders are a step closer to once again tossing spoons, jigs and more into a pair of famed North Sound rivers during prime time for their brawny wild winter-runs, but there’s still thick brambles and slick cobbles to wade through first.
Tomorrow, federal overseers will put a proposed Skagit-Sauk winter-spring fishery out for a 30-day public comment period.
Yet even if OKed for this coming season, the rub for sport anglers will be whether state funding is found to monitor fishing over Puget Sound’s strongest, yet still ESA-listed stock.
The rivers are otherwise scheduled to again close at the end of January.
Recent years have certainly seen enough winter steelhead in the system that alone accounts for 38 percent of the inland sea’s overall production.
Springs 2013, ’14 and ’15 saw an average of 8,800 hit the gravel on the upper Skagit and Sauk Rivers and their tribs.
That’s a 350 percent increase over 2009’s woeful return and well above the average for the 25 years between 1980 and 2004. (The 2018 forecast isn’t out yet.)
And support has been building since Occupy Skagit held its first hookless fish-in at Howard Miller Steelhead Park in April 2013.
That was the year after the last time the rivers were scheduled to be open as the cottonwoods budded, grouse drummed and skunk cabbages bloomed, but four springs after it actually was due to emergency rule changes.
Opening the water would put anglers back on a once-proud system where the only viable opportunity of late has been plunking for sockeye due to critically low pink and coho salmon runs and the end of hatchery steelhead releases.
But just as WDFW is required by its NMFS permit to do on fisheries it holds on the Methow and a host of Columbia Basin waters over federally protected runs, it must track angler effort and catches on the Skagit and Sauk.
The agency’s Wild Futures fee-increase bid this year would have paid for that.
Some steelheaders strongly urged others to support it.
But it got snagged by fellow sportsmen and Senate-side state lawmakers during the legislative session.
So now, with other projects competing for the same scarce dollars, WDFW managers are struggling to rationalize spending, let alone come up with the estimated $110,000 needed to perform creel sampling from Concrete to Rockport on the Skagit, and from Rockport to Darrington on the Sauk.
Some are optimistic; some are pessimistic.
As it stands, under the plan now out for review and submitted by WDFW and the Sauk-Suiattle, Swinomish and Upper Skagit Tribes, as well as the Skagit River System Cooperative, sport fishing could open as early as February and run through April 30, depending on run forecasts.
Late winter and early to midspring are the best times to get after wild steelhead with pink worms, double-stacked spoons, flashy plugs and flies.
Retention of them is even possible, but would require the Fish and Wildlife Commission to amend the regulations.
Tribal harvest could occur from Dec. 1 to April 15.
A range of 40 to 457 wild steelhead were taken annually during test and other netting this millennium, according to the plan.
Proposed overall sport and tribal impacts range from 4 percent at run sizes of less than 4,000 to 25 percent at returns greater than 8,000.
“While we recognize that substantial improvements to enhance the productivity and protection of habitat are necessary to ensure the long-term viability of Skagit steelhead populations, the assessments presented in this plan indicate that a low level of fishery mortality is consistent with the survival and recovery of the Puget Sound DPS,” the authors argue.
I appreciate that WDFW and the tribes worked together on the proposal, and hats off to NMFS for getting it out for comment. This is a really important fishery to start up again.
Best case scenario is that commenters don’t find faults, the state does locate money to sample anglers, and the tribes get their share of fish.
Worst case scenario is that it’s approved, the state doesn’t find the money, the tribes get their share of fish, and anglers are stuck on the bank.
Comments on the plan when it comes out can be sent to James Dixon, NMFS Sustainable Fisheries Division, 510 Desmond Drive, Suite 103, Lacey, WA 98503 or firstname.lastname@example.org with “Comments on Skagit River Steelhead Harvest Plan” in the subject line.