Tag Archives: nmfs

With Feds And ESA Pushing, Major Change To Popular Sky Summer Steelhead Program Mulled

Washington steelhead managers hope to save the popular Skykomish River summer-run fishery by switching to a local broodstock, a move that feels like a hail Mary but is also described as just about their only realistic path forward.

SKYKOMISH RIVER SKAMANIA-STRAIN HATCHERY SUMMER-RUN STEELHEAD, LIKE THIS ONE CAUGHT ON A RAINY DAY BY WINSTON McCLANAHAN, WOULD BE REPLACED WITH TOLT RIVER SUMMERS UNDER AN AMBITIOUS PLAN WDFW AND THE TULALIP TRIBES HAVE HATCHED TO SAVE THE POPULAR FISHERY. (YO-ZURI PHOTO CONTEST)

Under pressure from federal overseers who want the state to end production of Skamania steelies in Puget Sound streams, WDFW and the Tulalip Tribes have come up with a plan to replace the strain in the Sky with Tolt River summers instead.

The whole thing could take years to get approved let alone implement, but it’s also a testament to the lengths officials are willing to go these days for Puget Sound’s last consumptive steelhead opportunity.

“We’re looking for a way to preserve that fishery,” says WDFW’s Jim Scott, a special assistant to the director. “We know its importance.”

He says that switching to the in-basin steelhead will also help meet conservation and Endangered Species Act goals for the listed stock.

The good news is that at this point, side-drifting and spoon fishing for hot summers on the Sky seems unlikely to suddenly come to a screeching halt.

“There’s no expectation to eliminate the existing program until we build up the Tolt,” Scott says, “and there will be a period of overlap of the programs” before releases of the steelhead strain originally from Southwest Washington ends.

THE SKYKOMISH ABOVE PROCTOR CREEK, BELOW REITER PONDS. (ANDY WALGAMOTT)

Several things are driving the move, Scott says, including last year’s new Mitchell Act biological opinion for hatchery operations in the Columbia Basin.

“NOAA informed us they would no longer permit out-of-DPS (distinct population segment) steelhead stocks in the Lower Columbia,” says Scott.

That effectively killed off use of Chambers Creek steelhead there.

Scott says that now-retired National Marine Fisheries Service manager Rob Jones dropped another strong hint afterwards about what was coming down the line — that managers should “just say no to stocks outside DPS.”

“Given the tremendous value of the Skykomish summer-run fishery, that created a great deal of concern in my mind,” Scott says.

Like the state, the feds are just as vulnerable to ESA lawsuits for incomplete or poorly permitted hatchery operations.

A July 21, 2017 letter (page 55 of this PDF) from NMFS West Coast regional administrator Barry Thom noted WDFW had yet to submit an updated hatchery genetic management plan for the summer steelhead program at Reiter Ponds on the Sky as well as Whitehorse on the North Fork Stilly, that those be reviewed with stakeholders and that the review result in the “timely development of alternatives to using segregated Skamania broodstock in the Snohomish and Stillaguamish basins.”

So WDFW along with the Tulalips and the ad hoc Puget Sound Steelhead Advisory Group have been casting around for potential solutions.

Scott suggests that there are still other though lesser possibilities, but one participant in PSSAG’s “gritty discussions” says this is it to save the fishery.

“WDFW has only one alternative, and that is to mine the Tolt River native stocks,” says member Mark Spada, who is also president of the venerable Snohomish Sportsmen’s Club and a longtime local angler.

The Tolt is a tributary of the Snoqualmie River which joins the Sky below Monroe to form the Snohomish.

“Without the Tolt fish, the summer-run program is done, despite being arguably one of the most successful hatchery programs ever designed,” Spada says. “This decision makes no sense, but the Sky smolt plant has already been reduced from 160,000, to 116,000, at the direction of NMFS.”

Two years ago, it actually looked even more grim than that. Rumors flew that Reiter Ponds summer steelhead output might be cut by around half — or the program killed off entirely.

THE SKYKOMISH IS THE ONLY RIVER NORTH OF THE COWLITZ AND EAST OF FORKS WHERE WESTERN WASHINGTON ANGLERS STAND A GOOD CHANCE OF CATCHING HARVESTABLE SUMMER STEELHEAD AND CHINOOK ON THE SAME FLOAT. (ANDY WALGAMOTT)

A PSSAG meeting handout from early last month explains the Skamanias-for-Tolts plan more fully.

It involves pumping redds in the Tolt to collect eggs that would then be hatched at Tokul Creek Hatchery. Fish would be reared there, then released from there and back in the Tolt.

Fertilized eggs from first-generation adults returning to Tokul would be transferred to Reiter for rearing and release there and upstream at Sunset Falls.

Release of unmarked steelhead above Sunset Falls would cease and Skamania production at Reiter would be phased out as Tolts took over.

Skamanias, known for their fight, are a 1950s mix of Klickitat River and Washougal River steelhead and come from the hatchery on the Washougal.

They were once planted in numerous Puget Sound rivers, including the Dungeness, Green, Skagit, Cascade, South Fork of the Stillaguamish, Canyon Creek, Sultan, North and South Forks of the Skykomish, Snoqualmie, Raging and Tolt.

But they have a propensity for interbreeding with native fish — steelhead in the North Fork Sky are “almost all Skamanias,” according to Scott — and so have been largely discontinued, leading to shrinking fishing opportunities over the years.

One big question is, if local wild summers are already Skamanias in part, why even bother and put the fishery at risk?

When WDFW was mulling Puget Sound wild gene banks in 2015, a presentation showed that native steelhead in the Tolt had been genetically influenced by the strain.

But according to Scott, new work shows that that percentage is “dropping” and that there may be different genes even between early and late spawners.

“Through careful selection, we hope to select for mostly Tolt summers,” he says.

Relatively speaking, not many summer steelhead spawn in the trib — a WDFW chart shows the escapement goal has rarely been met the past 15 years — and 2015’s drought probably didn’t do us any favors either, but a side benefit of the plan is that it could help rebuild Tolt stocks.

While it all seems like a long reach, Spada’s actually optimistic.

“With the science now available, the Tolt project has a good chance of succeeding, and should be the long-term answer,” he says.

And Scott too is bullish.

“We want to be careful how we do it, but we have real experience restoring runs that are very small,” he says.

He points to restoration work on Hamma Hamma steelhead, Nooksack spring Chinook and Stillaguamish fall Chinook that is “opening up paths we didn’t have before.”

Scott credits PSSAG members for their work on the issue, calling them “a great group of folks” with a wide diversity of perspectives.

Indeed, he cautions that not everybody’s on board with the general consensus to move forward with this plan, but “to the extent we can, we’ll address their issues.”

Yet more questions remain.

How long will it take for WDFW and the Tulalips to write a solid HGMP?

Without a local ally like former state Sen. Kirk Pearson to chivvy them, with NMFS’s workload how long will it take for the feds to review the document, get clarifications and ultimately — hopefully — approve it?

Scott doesn’t want to hazard a guess how many years it may be.

And in the meanwhile, will the Wild Fish Conservancy or other similar-minded groups use the lack of an ESA-required HGMP to sue WDFW over Skamanias, like they did with Chambers winters?

That’s all TBD, but Spada’s crossing his fingers WDFW’s gamble pays off because of the importance of the Skykomish River fishery to Puget Sound steelheaders.

“It’s the only viable summer-run program left,” he says.

THE  SKYKOMISH RIVER SUMMER-RUN PROGRAM PRODUCES FISH FOR BANK ANGLERS WHO FLOCK TO REITER AND CABLE, AND SIDE-DRIFTERS WHO WORK LOWER IN THE RIVER SYSTEM. A QUARTET SHOWS OFF FIVE PLUS A SUMMER CHINOOK CAUGHT EARLY LAST JUNE WITH GUIDE SHEA FISHER. (THEFISHERE.COM)

Survey Finds Good Krill Numbers Again Off Oregon, But Even More Pyrosomes

An annual spring survey off the Northwest Coast came up with some good and bad news for key stocks.

Krill — hugely important near the base of the ocean food web — and young Dungeness crab numbers were as high as they’ve been in some time, but there are even more pyrosomes off Oregon’s Central Coast and to the south than last year.

RESEARCHERS CALLED THE RETURN OF KRILL TO THEIR SAMPLING NETS “A WELCOME SIGHT SINCE THESE IMPORTANT FORAGE HAVE LARGELY BEEN ABSENT OVER THE PAST COUPLE YEARS SINCE THE ANOMALOUS WARMING” FROM THE BLOB. (NWFSC)

Jennifer Fisher, fresh off a 10-day survey between San Francisco Bay and Newport, reported the findings on the Northwest Fisheries Science Center blog.

“These are the most Dungeness larvae and juveniles we’ve collected in a long time, and we have not seen krill numbers like this since before 2015,” Fisher followed up via email.

That year, 2015, was the height of The Blob — the huge pool of warmer than usual water in the Northeast Pacific that messed things up at sea and on land — and it was also a year after pyrosomes first began to be found in our coastal waters.

By last year, the tropical gelatinous, sea-pickle thingies that are actually colonies of organisms were clogging fishing gear off our coast and even turned up as far north as the rim of the Gulf of Alaska, also a first.

While rockfish were observed feeding on pyrosomes, it’s not clear how their numbers will affect the food web. Another NOAA blog from last October states, “At this point, there are more questions than answers.”

But the May survey answered the question whether they’re still out there.

“The pyrosome catches appear slightly larger and the colonies are larger compared to last year,” reports Fisher.

They can be found starting about 10 miles off the coast, living on the bottom during the day and rising to the surface at night.

PYROSOMES FILL A COOLER ABOARD THE NATIONAL OCEANIC AND ATMOSPHERIC ADMINISTRATION’S VESSEL, THE BELL M. SHIMADA. (NWFSC)

The Science Center will soon conduct another closely watched spring survey, collecting information on young Chinook and coho off Oregon.

Last year’s produced very low catches while one a couple years ago found very small fish. But the resurgence of krill is a hopeful sign that the food web could be rebuilding coming out of the hangover from the Blob.

Fisher also reported on Science Center’s blog that copepods are in a state of flux between winter warm-water communities and summer, cold-water ones that come with the upwelling.

So what does it all mean?

“The krill is a good sign, but the pyrosomes are not, since they are indicative of warm water,” she says. “And the transitional copepod community is also not a great sign for salmon. But it’s still early in the summer upwelling season, so things can certainly change.”

Skagit-Sauk Catch Estimates Show A Hot Day, And Mostly Good Fishing

If you were lucky enough to be steelheading in Washington’s North Cascades on April 18, you most likely had a very, very good day.

DRIFT BOAT ANGLERS MAKE THEIR WAY DOWN THE SAUK RIVER DURING APRIL’S 12-DAY FISHERY. (ANDY WALGAMOTT)

One-fifth of all the wild winter-runs caught during the recently concluded 12-day catch-and-release fishery on the Skagit and Sauk Rivers were landed that Wednesday, according to preliminary estimates from state monitors.

That didn’t surprise Brett Barkdull, the district fisheries biologist, who’d dropped some not-so-subtle hints that it might be a good one to call in sick.

BOBBER AND SPOON RODS AWAIT EMPLOYMENT ALONG THE SAUK THIS SPRING. (ANDY WALGAMOTT)

“I thought the total catch on that first Wednesday when the Sauk was first in shape might have been higher actually,” he said.

The Sauk, which shot up to 9,500 cubic feet per second as rains swept in on the eve of opening weekend, had dropped back to 6,000 cfs by that morning, and the river’s fish had yet to feel the hidden sting of fishermen’s pink worms, plugs and spoons.

GLACIAL FLOUR FROM THE SUIATTLE RIVER CLOUDS THE SAUK BELOW GOVERNMENT BRIDGE. (ANDY WALGAMOTT)

Barkdull cautioned that data his team of creel samplers collected haven’t been finalized yet, but the early estimates show that anglers caught 118 steelhead on April 18, or one for every 8.86 hours of effort that day, a figure that may be a high mark for some time to come.

“I don’t expect there will be a day like that again unless we get a year with a huge return,” noted Barkdull.

WHITEHORSE MOUNTAIN RISES OVER THE FLATS NEAR DARRINGTON. AT ONE TIME SEVERAL THOUSAND YEARS AGO, THE SAUK ACTUALLY DRAINED WEST THROUGH THE NORTH FORK STILLAGUAMISH RIVER VALLEY, BUT NOW MEETS THE SKAGIT AT ROCKPORT. (ANDY WALGAMOTT)

Over the dozen days of fishing, 565 steelhead were caught in 11,504 total hours of fishing, or one every 20.36 hours.

A rate of 20 hours a fish is considered to be “off the charts good,” Barkdull said.

“Three hundred hours for a fish is more the norm for Puget Sound,” he said.

The slowest day was the final Saturday, April 28, when it zipped up to 85 hours a fish as several consecutive days of hot weather wilted mountain snowpack, sending both rivers back up.

While the National Marine Fisheries Service holds WDFW to a 10 percent mortality rate in C&R steelhead fisheries, Barkdull personally feels it’s likely far lower. He pointed to a study from the Vedder showing a 2.5 percent rate as a good surrogate, but acknowledged the feds’ 10 percent as the management standard.

Barkdull said there wasn’t anything unexpected in the preliminary figures, which he said are probably within 10 percent of where final ones will be.

“We put people right on top of a bunch of naïve fish late in the season when they were all upriver staging to spawn,” he said.

THIS DOUBLE-STACK SPOON HAS BEEN SLUMBERING IN THE EDITOR’S TACKLE BOX FOR NINE YEARS IN HOPES OF ONE DAY AGAIN SPLASHING DOWN IN THE SAUK. (ANDY WALGAMOTT)

He doubts that this year’s 20-hours-a-fish rate will hold up in the coming four federally permitted winter-spring fisheries, what with their likely earlier start dates and longer seasons.

“The fish will trickle in, get caught, some will get smart, some will move out of the fishing area, and effort will even out and be less,” Barkdull forecasted.

It took what felt like forever to get this year’s fishery approved. The last season here was in 2009, and following a number of poor returns, the rivers were closed.

But in 2013, the group Occupy Skagit began rallying to reopen the rivers. A management plan that WDFW and three area tribes sent to NMFS in 2016 was finally approved early last month.

TILL NEXT SEASON! (ANDY WALGAMOTT)

It requires strict monitoring of catches, and Barkdull’s estimates show that steelheaders also kept three hatchery steelhead, released 219 bull trout, 12 rainbow trout, six cutthroat and three spring Chinook, rounding up and down.

“We saw no illegal kept fish of any sort,” he added.

He said there are plans in the works to break out catches for bank, jet, drift, conventional, fly, and guided and unguided anglers.

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.

(ANDY WALGAMOTT)

“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.

If OKed, Skagit-Sauk Steelhead Fishery May Not Open Till Spring

Between the hopes, the vow, the disappointment, the so-so run forecast, the budget and the feds, will anybody be happy with a wild steelhead fishery on the Skagit-Sauk if we get one this year?

However long it might last.

Whatever shape it might take.

Whenever it might get approved.

AN ANGLER CASTS A LINE ON THE SKAGIT RIVER AT THE MOUTH OF THE SAUK EARLIER THIS MONTH. (CHASE GUNNELL)

THE VOW

In early December, the National Marine Fisheries Service put WDFW and local tribes’ proposed fisheries on the North Cascades river system out for final comment.

Two days later, during open public input at WDFW’s December 9 Fish and Wildlife Commission meeting in Olympia, Leland Miyawaki of Occupy Skagit — which has long been a driving force behind reinstating the catch-and-release season — spoke once again in support of it.

WDFW DIRECTOR JIM UNSWORTH DURING THE DEC. 9, 2017 FISH AND WILDLIFE COMMISSION, TELEVISED ON TVW, WHERE THIS SCREEN GRAB CAME FROM. (TVW)

As he finished his testimony, Commissioner Jay Holzmiller from Anatone, in the opposite corner of the state from the Skagit, asked WDFW Director Jim Unsworth if he could get Miyawaki some answers.

Unsworth went one better.

“If we get the approval, it’s going to happen,” he said right then.

THE DISAPPOINTMENT AND THE BUDGET

The “if” really isn’t a question, but Unsworth’s vow confidently glossed over a crucial unresolved issue: finding the funding to monitor and enforce the rules during a federally permitted fishery over what is an ESA-listed stock, albeit the strongest one in Puget Sound.

When WDFW rolled out its Wild Futures fee increase proposal last year, the cost to hold a Feb. 1 to April 30 season on the Skagit between Concrete and Rockport and the Sauk from its mouth to Darrington was modeled at $110,000.

Wild Futures went nowhere in the state Legislature.

The $110,000 evaporated.

That meant the money has to come from elsewhere in WDFW’s coffers.

Sure, their wolf people tamer just got a new $425,000 contract extension, but the reality is this money could never come from that pot. Instead, local staffers would need to be retasked from their important stream surveys, work at hatcheries and crunching data to do creel sampling.

Anglers like you and I might accept that as a good tradeoff, though ultimately it could cost us down the road in other ways.

Anyway, with Unsworth all but guaranteeing we’ll fish, when WDFW held the first of two recent public meetings with steelheaders to help shape a fishery, managers said they had located enough funding — roughly $30,000 — for a two-week season.

Er, two weeks?

Having not been able to fish the Sauk and Skagit in prime time — February, March and April — since 2009, it would be fair to say that 14 days is not exactly what many anglers such as myself had in mind.

The federal plan allows fishing from as early as Feb. 1 to as late as April 15 or 30. (It’s unclear which is meant — both are listed as end dates in different areas of the document.)

So … JUST TWO WEEKS?!?!

That’s like … a freshwater halibut season, man!

A mad rush to the river, overcrowded boat ramps, 20 drifters or sleds side-drifting every run and lumberyard, fly guys and spoon chuckers and bobber lobbers lining the banks, Howard Miller packed to the gills.

It didn’t go over so well with some.

Subsequent to that first meeting was a second, and afterwards Occupy Skagit reported on Facebook “there was talk from the presenters at Sedro Woolley that the entire season may well be funded.”

Setting aside what “the entire season” might mean for just a moment, it wasn’t clear where those additional dollars were coming from, though it’s possible Unsworth — who is an eager river angler himself — took some words from Commissioner Kim Thorburn to heart.

“Director, you can do double duty, doing the monitoring while you’re fishing,” the Spokane birder said at the Dec. 9 meeting.

THE FEDERAL REALITY

Regardless of how much spare change Unsworth et al have found underneath the agency’s assorted cushions, how long we’re able to fish the Sauk and Skagit in 2018 boils down to when Barry Thom literally signs off on it.

Thom would be NMFS’s West Coast administrator in Portland. His minions put the fishery proposal out for a 30-day comment period starting Dec. 7 and ending Jan. 8.

During that time, NMFS received somewhere around 120 missives, according to spokesman Michael Milstein.

So now of course those have to be gone through for their merits.

I imagine many are legit — clearing up that confusing double end date deal, say — while others may be more about delaying or even scuttling a 2018 season altogether.

I want to be clear that this doesn’t work for me What. So. Ever, but an argument can be made to just take a deep breath and get everything in order for a full February-April fishery in 2019.

Spread out the pressure, maybe there will be more fish than the 4,000 to 6,000 expected this year, down from recent years’ average spawner escapement of 8,800.

But with 2017’s North Sound salmon fisheries (LOL) and all this with the Puget Sound Chinook Harvest Management Plan and its potential impacts if king forecasts are low, getting area anglers something — anything — is pretty damned important.

So it’s good to hear that federal overseers are busting their butts to potentially get us on the river.

“We have put extra people on this and expect a decision this spring, but we don’t have a date. It won’t be January, but we’re moving quickly so Barry can make a decision as soon as possible,” NMFS’s Milstein says.

“This spring” technically means anywhere between March 20 and June 21, though an approval in the latter half of the period is utterly useless in terms of a fishery this year.

Trying to buy us some more time, I pointed out to Milstein that, according to University of Washington weather blogger Cliff Mass, the Westside’s meteorological spring actually starts “the third week in February.”

He didn’t respond.

Maybe he’s helping review all those comments.

Possible Skagit Basin Winter-spring Steelhead Fishery Subject Of 2 Meetings

THE FOLLOWING IS A PRESS RELEASE FROM THE WASHINGTON DEPARTMENT OF FISH AND WILDLIFE

The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) has scheduled meetings to discuss with the public a proposed recreational steelhead fishery in the Skagit Basin, where rivers have been closed to steelhead fishing for several years.

TWO STEELHEADERS FISH THE SAUK RIVER UNDER WHITEHORSE DURING A PAST SEASON. (ANDY WALGAMOTT)

The public meetings are scheduled for 6 to 8 p.m. and include the following dates and locations:

Mill Creek: Jan. 12, WDFW Regional Office, 16018 Mill Creek Blvd., Mill Creek

Sedro-Woolley: Jan. 16, Sedro-Woolley Community Center, 702 Pacific St., Sedro-Woolley

At the meetings, state fish managers will discuss a proposal to allow fisheries for wild steelhead in the Skagit, Sauk and Suiattle rivers. These rivers have been closed to steelhead fishing since 2010 due to low numbers of returning fish.

WDFW is proposing catch-and-release recreational fishing for wild steelhead.

“In recent years, we’ve seen more steelhead returning to the Skagit Basin than before we closed the rivers to fishing,” said Edward Eleazer, WDFW regional fish program manager. “Given the low number of steelhead mortalities associated with this sport fishery, we don’t expect it will harm efforts to recover steelhead populations.”

The Skagit Basin steelhead proposal, developed by state and tribal co-managers, is pending approval from NOAA Fisheries.

The federal agency is seeking comments through Jan. 8 on the proposal, which can be found on NOAA’s website at
http://www.westcoast.fisheries.noaa.gov/…/skagit-steelhead_….

If the proposal is approved, the state could allow a sport fishery within the next few months. During public meetings, WDFW will gather feedback on timing for the proposed fishery as well as discuss gear regulations.

Skagit-Sauk Steelhead Fishery Proposal Going Out For Public Comment

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.

IMAGES FROM A TRIP IN SEARCH OF EARLY SAUK WINTER STEELHEAD ON THE LAST JANUARY 2017 WEEKEND THE RIVER WAS OPEN FOR FISHING. (ANDY WALGAMOTT)

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.

(ANDY WALGAMOTT)

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.)

(ANDY WALGAMOTT)

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.

(ANDY WALGAMOTT)

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.

(ANDY WALGAMOTT)

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.

(ANDY WALGAMOTT)

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.

(ANDY WALGAMOTT)

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.

(ANDY WALGAMOTT)

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 skagit-steelhead-harvest-plan.wcr@noaa.gov with “Comments on Skagit River Steelhead Harvest Plan” in the subject line.

TILL THE SAUK AND SKAGIT ARE REOPENED IN FEBRUARY, MARCH AND APRIL, ANGLERS WILL HAVE TO MAKE DO WITH THE OCCASIONAL EARLY WINTER STEELHEAD AND PLENTIFUL BULL TROUT. (ANDY WALGAMOTT)