On what otherwise would have been the busiest day of the coho fishing year on the Snohomish River system — the start of the big Everett derby — anglers could only cast hookless spinners, twitching jigs and spoons into the Skykomish.
The several dozen fishermen gathered on the gravel at the Lewis Street launch in Monroe on Saturday morning for an Occupy Skagit-style fish-in were protesting the inability of state fishery managers to open up the water there as this year’s return of silvers peaked.
“Man,” Joe Friderich told me as he kept an eye on his son wandering down the bar, “I just want to fish.”
He said that if the Sky had been open, by that time of the morning he would have been about a third of the way into the float between the Sultan put-in and Lewis Street.
But shackled without a way to perform an in-season update on the run, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife has had to keep the Snohomish and Skykomish closed for coho per a fisheries agreement reached with the comanagers this spring, at a time when the return was forecasted to be very weak and following last year’s poor run.
It won’t be clear how many fish actually make it back this year until spawning surveys are wrapped up and the last coho straggle in to two upriver checkpoints, but Danny Stonedahl of River Chrome Guide Service and one of the organizers of Puget Sound Fish Anyway reported lots of jumpers at daybreak, and around 10:30 they started splashing again in the Sky.
Stonedahl said he was also seeing good numbers of coho to the north in the Skagit, which is also closed but at least there there is a glimmer of hope if another test fishery is positive.
On the Skykomish, the best-case scenario is some sort of mark-selective fishery around and/or in the small Wallace River, on which the state salmon hatchery sits, presumably when broodstock needs are met.
(The upper mainstem Sky opened for summer-run steelhead Saturday — and one of the first fish caught at Reiter Ponds was a coho, which had to be released.)
The protest was the fourth that salmon anglers have held in response to this year’s fisheries. I have attended three as a reporter, and what struck me about Saturday morning’s was how young most of those in attendance were. There were dads in their 20s and 30s like Friderich with small children in tow — and more than a few kiddos were practicing casting under their father’s tutelage.
The age of organizers Stonedahl, Kyle Sorenson and Brady McGuire stood in sharp contrast to their counterparts at the rallies at the National Marine Fisheries Service’s Lacey office in May and WDFW’s George Adams Hatchery on the Skokomish in late July too. Those were put together by venerable groups such as Puget Sound Anglers, Steelhead Trout Club of Washington and the Coastal Conservation Association.
“This is all driven by young guys,” said Jeff Mastro, an older angler who’d come up from Duvall. “I am just here to support them.”
The young men spoke as if they were old hands at this, while also representing Northwest anglerdom’s Facebook set.
“We’re not superbummed it was closed at the start of season,” said Stonedahl. “What we are fighting for is better in-season management.”
“I’m all for conservation,” Sorenson told me, “but when the tribes can fish, it is a little upsetting.”
Where the tribes are fishing, generally speaking there is some form of sport fishery occurring, this year mostly upstream behind nets.
But the Snohomish — traditionally one of if not the most productive coho system in Puget Sound — is not on that list, and that rankles river anglers.
Things were made worse when WDFW Director Jim Unsworth last weekend expressed optimism about a potential fishery here on a local radio show, which I also reported, but subsequently the good early showing of fish faltered. Sen. Kirk Pearson (R) of Monroe, who represents three of the four most important North Sound coho watersheds, got involved and the pressure skyrocketed.
In a letter to Unsworth, Pearson noted the positive effects of opening fisheries on WDFW’s coffers, but local businesses are suffering too. Sorenson and another angler told me the popular Sultan Bakery was seeing a “huge impact” and faces an even bigger gap between summer fishing and ski seasons.
Last weekend when I picked up a ridiculous amount of lures at a western Snohomish County tackle shack, they told me that where last year they had sold 7,000 units in one particular lure line, this year they’d moved all of 100.
True, a lot of that probably was because 2015 was a pink salmon year, but that lure can also be effective on silvers off saltwater beaches — except those waters are closed too this year.
“Without humpies, there’s no fishing,” said Stonedahl. “No Chinook — we need these coho in fall.”
I don’t think I am going far out on the limb when I say that Pugetropolis has some serious issues to overcome when it comes to salmon recovery, or that ocean conditions are troubling. And I don’t think it is a stretch to stress how important a fishery coho are these days, especially in even-numbered years like this.
Long term, assloads more habitat work needs to be done — and the state of Washington needs to get out of the ditch and quit appealing the culvert case.
Short term, it would behoove WDFW to diversify the way in which inseason updates can be performed.
“You can’t just close it and not have a way to reopen it,” Mastro, the Duvall fisherman, told me. “I’m not satisfied that WDFW knows anything about these numbers. I’m pro average fisherman, even if it is just catch and release. But just to flat-out close it, I don’t know, seems flat-out negligent.”
Inserted into the LOAF, or list of agreed-to fisheries reached by the state and Western Washington tribes, were caveats for the hatchery-coho-driven Lake Washington and Duwamish systems, where if the conservative forecasts proved wrong and inseason benchmarks were met or exceeded, fisheries could be considered.
They were met, and we are on the water there.
On the Snohomish, however, it doesn’t appear such placeholders were written into the LOAF, and what is more, WDFW doesn’t appear to have the ability to do its own test netting if, say, a tribe refuses to.
Mastro had another idea: What about installing sonar readers across rivers like they do in Alaska to count Chinook returning to Kenai Peninsula and Bristol Bay rivers?
Data is collected daily, posted online and can be compared to trends in recent years.
“Maybe we don’t have the commercial fishing industry, but there’s a lot of money here,” Mastro said, adding he’d be willing to pay, in effect, an endorsement to fish the Snohomish system if money went towards such monitoring.
My understanding is that it would actually take quite a few of us to fund sonar on a single river, let alone all those in the North Sound managed for wild coho.
Another problem is our rivers see more species of salmonids than those in Alaska. Fish length might be one way to determine if a salmon is a humpy or a coho, but some of last year’s pinks and silvers were also similar in size too, so annual calibrations due to ocean conditions would be needed. Maybe the camera count managers at Columbia fish ladders could provide some tips.
Anyway, it is an idea that WDFW should look into much more seriously, as one other sentiment I heard was that guys were not unwilling to pay tribes to fish for salmon and steelhead produced at their hatcheries. The lower Quinault on the Quinault Indian Reservation is written up as no less than a world-class fishery comparable to Alaska in our October issue.
But not all of us have the financial resources to fish either of those Shangri-Las, or escape to British Columbia or elsewhere.
We are stuck here. And this is the water we want to cast our line into, preferably actually with a hook on the other end.
Braeden Pickering and Taylor Derus of — we’ll call it — South Arlington had brought their drifter to float from Lewis Street down to Snohomish while running plugs and other lures sans hooks. I sensed they and others were waiting for TV cameras to arrive and really help deliver their message, but Friday night’s shooting at the mall in Burlington that left five dead and a suspect in custody late on Saturday likely shifted station news coverage away from the protest.
Still, I appreciated the lads for organizing and turning out for the cause. Even if my coho fishing these days is done on the Duwamish, which is all of 80 yards from my desk at work, having grown up in Sultan and Woodinville I consider the Sky to be my home waters.
“This river is too close to Seattle” for WDFW not to make it more of a priority, Mastro noted.
When the Wild Fish Conservancy sued the agency over Puget Sound hatchery winter steelhead, one of two keys for WDFW in the out-of-court settlement was continuity of releases into the Sky.
I grant that the agency has other budget holes to try and patch this next legislative session, and going forward WDFW must put more emphasis on making sure we can always fish Snohomish system silvers when there is a harvestable surplus. Hugely important, yes, but there’s more to Puget Sound salmon fishing than Areas 9 and 10 hatchery Chinook.