Still Waiting On Federal Go-ahead For Spring Skagit-Sauk Steelhead

Spring has arrived and although there are some positive recent signs for those eagerly anticipating a Skagit-Sauk steelhead fishery, the waiting continues.

“No decision yet,” said federal spokesman Michael Milstein this morning.

With the state’s monitoring program in place and ready to go, Milstein’s boss, National Marine Fisheries Service regional administrator Barry Thom, has the final call — and is being hounded by all sides to decide in their favor.


“We realize the intense interest based on the many diverse comments we received and we are working hard to complete it as soon as we can. However, we are not there yet,” Milstein added.

As first mentioned yesterday afternoon by angler advocate Ryley Fee, a five-day-a-week fishery could start as early as late March and run through April, word that set off waves of excitement online — at least among some.

Reopening the North Cascades rivers for a catch-and-release season is a long-held dream of Occupy Skagit and others.

We’re eager to chase these famed wild winter-runs, which have been otherwise off limits since 2009 due to a series of low runs and then changing regulations to protect the strong but still ESA-listed stock. Anglers have had to travel to the Olympic Peninsula instead to get their kicks, adding pressure to rivers there.

But it’s also not universally supported by fishermen, and for a variety of reasons.

No less than famed steelheader and former Skagit guide Bill Herzog said he’ll take a pass on hitting the water, at least the opener, which if authorized could be crowded.

Some think we should hold off, that opening the rivers in the short term threatens what the fishery could be over the long term.

At 5,200 and change, this year’s run forecast is well below recent years’ average and it remains to be seen how the blob will have affected it, though it is likely the steelhead that do return will still be able to flood the available habitat with their progeny.

While it sounds like there’s little actual interest on the part of treaty fishermen, there are also objections to the tribal gillnetting that would be reallowed under the plan.

And for others, it’s about ensuring enough fish are available for a possible broodstock program, as allowed under the 2014 settlement between the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife and the Wild Fish Conservancy.

Speaking of the latter outfit, their love of lawsuits weighs heavily on NMFS’s collective mind.

“Given the record, we have to anticipate litigation, so we have to be sure the decision is solid and well-supported,” says Milstein. “Otherwise we risk being sent right back here again.”

The feds are reviewing comments received in early winter on their tentative approval of WDFW and three Skagit Basin tribes’ plans for fisheries.

The comment period ended in January and ever since NMFS has been crossing its t’s and dotting its i’s “so we don’t leave any loose ties,” Milstein says.

Albeit at an aggravatingly slow pace for those who want to get on the water as spring comes to the North Cascades.

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