Tag Archives: occupy skagit

Skagit-Sauk Steelheading Could Be Cut In 2020 With WDFW’s Budget Woes

There may not be a Skagit-Sauk steelhead catch-and-release season next spring due to WDFW’s growing money woes, a “bitter pill” for the anglers who worked for half a decade to reopen the iconic North Cascades waters.

DRIFT BOATERS COME DOWN A SLIGHT RAPID ON THE SAUK YESTERDAY. (ANDY WALGAMOTT)

The recently reinstated fishery is now on the chopping block as state managers scramble to figure out what to cut coming out of the recent legislative session that only partially filled a shortfall — and which subsequently also ballooned from $7 million to $21 million.

Rich Simms, cofounder of the Wild Steelhead Coalition, said his organization was “deeply disappointed” by the news relayed in an email late last week by WDFW Director Kelly Susewind that Puget Sound’s sole opportunity to fish for wild winter-runs would be “eliminated.”

“While we recognize the difficult budget situation the Department faces and strongly support Olympia ending the underfunding of our fish and wildlife, we believe WDFW should do everything possible to keep the Skagit catch and release steelhead fishery open,” Simms said in a statement.

Closed due to low runs in 2009, returns rebounded several years ago, but because the region’s steelhead are listed under the Endangered Species Act, federal overseers require the fishery to be monitored as part of the state permit, and that costs a pretty penny.

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

Before this year’s February-April season, WDFW staffers estimated that between hiring a new biologist to oversee the fishery and write reports, bringing on creelers, providing them with rigs and things like waders, and then flying the rivers to double check angler numbers, it would cost around $210,000 a year to provide the opportunity.

The receipts are still being tallied and it is already likely in the neighborhood of $150,000, per district fisheries biologiat Brett Barkdull, but it was also anticipated that that “Cadillac” level of monitoring for the first full season (spring 2018 saw an abbreviated 12-day opener) would likely be backed off in the coming years.

But now, it may be moot.

That there might not be another season for at least the next two years caught the attention of the Fish and Wildlife Commission during a conference call last Friday.

Chair Larry Carpenter of Mount Vernon defended the fishery and pointed out how the group Occupy Skagit had worked diligently with the citizen panel since the early years of this decade to open the rivers again.

“It’s about as clean a fishery as you can imagine. I would really, really object to that being eliminated. I think it’s false economics and I just don’t think it’s going to work into the future,” Carpenter said.

His comments came as commissioners discussed raising the WDFW vacancy rate — the number of agency jobs that are open but purposefully left unfilled — from 4 percent to up to 4.3 percent to save some money.

That idea didn’t go over well with Commissioner Dave Graybill of Leavenworth who related how a Bellingham creel sampler he’d talked to during a recent spot prawn opener was told there was only six month’s salary available for her position but that she could be reassigned away from the town she’s lived in for 22 years.

“We really have to think about the impact of what we’re doing if we consider any other increases to that 4 percent. I would object to any movement that would increase that,” said Graybill.

Also on his mind was the expiration of the Columbia River Salmon and Steelhead Endorsement after lawmakers failed to renew it and which will primarily impact opportunities in his neck of the basin.

“I don’t know where we’re going to find the money to conduct fisheries in my region particularly,” Graybill said.

This year’s runs are poor, so there won’t be much fishing, but just like the Skagit-Sauk, some of those seasons are subject to federally required monitoring.

Commissioner Kim Thorburn of Spokane sympathized with her colleagues.

“These are really hard decisions. Everybody has a favorite fishery and whatever we cut is going to be hurt. As David’s pointed out is, what’s being cut across the board are the Upper Columbia fisheries,” she said.

While funding for those fell victim to state lawmakers not extending the endorsement, money for the Skagit C&R fishery was built into WDFW’s license fee increase proposal to the legislature, which also died.

The steelhead coalition’s Simms blamed the latter failure on organizations that opposed the hike because of “contentious issues and discontent with the Department” — code for the commission’s Lower Columbia salmon reforms pause vote.

A CLIENT OF GUIDE CHRIS SENYOHL SHOWS OFF A WILD WINTER STEELHEAD CAUGHT DURING APRIL 2018’S 12-DAY REOPENING OF THE SKAGIT AND SAUK RIVER. (INTREPID ANGLERS, VIA AL SENYOHL)

Technically, the Skagit money has been on the “enhance opportunities” side of the fee increase ledger, and WDFW Director Susewind told commissioners he would struggle to move it out of what is effectively an optional category over to the “maintain” side.

“We’ve been pretty transparent with folks that, absent money, we’re not going to be able get to the enhancements and that was one of them. We’ll dig in, we’ll do some additional work, but … at some point we have to make the final decision. And we also, frankly, have to quit doing everything that we said we couldn’t do when we don’t get the money,” he said.

Susewind said that leads to credibility issues with lawmakers about the original need, and also results in a poorer work product “which further erodes our credibility.”

But an immense amount of work also went into getting the Skagit-Sauk fishery back — that longterm lobbying Carpenter referenced, staff from not only WDFW but three tribes writing a joint management plan, and the feds weighing and ultimately signing off on the document.

For WSC’s Simms, the Skagit-Sauk fishery is not only an economic driver for mountain towns well off the beaten path in late winter and early spring but the “sustainable” opportunity is a “powerful tool” for conservation.

“Losing this fishery once again after only one full fishing season would be a bitter pill to swallow, especially given the hard work of so many steelhead advocates, many of whom support fish and wildlife funding and other conservation programs,” he said.

THE “FAMILY OF ARCHERS” STATUE IN DARRINGTON MARKS THE ENTRY TO THE I.G.A. STORE, WHERE THE BLOGGER IN CHIEF POINTEDLY STOPPED TO PICK UP (MORE THAN ENOUGH) SUPPLIES DURING AN APRIL OUTING ON THE MIDDLE AND LOWER SAUK RIVER FOR WILD STEELHEAD. (ANDY WALGAMOTT)

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.

‘Paperwork, A**-covering, Scary Numbers And Veiled Lawsuit Threats’ — Skagit Steelheading Still Up In Air

Frustrations are boiling over on the Skagit-Sauk steelheading front.

A group of anglers who’ve been a driving force in trying to reopen the rivers since 2013 all but threw in the towel on a spring catch-and-release season this year.

ANGLERS WORK SOME OF THE SAUK’S “LUMBERYARDS” FOR BIG NATIVE STEELHEAD AS WHITEHORSE MOUNTAIN LOOKS ON. (ANDY WALGAMOTT)

“Whatever happens next will not be good. One of our most litigious dot-orgs has got the Feds wrapped up in paperwork, ass-covering, scary numbers and veiled lawsuit threats,” Occupy Skagit posted on its Facebook page overnight. “If a season were to open now, it will be too short and concentrated with too many encounters. Best to not open it.”

But another angler who’s been closely tracking the issue is holding out hope.

“NOAA is dragging their feet,” replied Ryley Fee, “and whoever the organizations are who are impeding on our right to fish by threatening lawsuits ought to be publicized so we can all write them a letter and let them know how we feel about taking this resource away from us this year. I’m pissed off and angry, and need an outlet if it doesn’t open.”

The North Cascades rivers haven’t been open for a winter-spring C&R fishery since 2009 due to a series of low forecasted returns, then was written out of the regulations, but subsequently saw strong escapement though this year’s run is predicted to be a bit low but in the fishable range.

As for which dot-orgs might be involved in the stalling tactics, if one were to draw up a list of the usual suspects, it would likely include the Wild Fish Conservancy, which stumbled very badly recently when it made exaggerated claims about Atlantic salmon but ultimately was on the prevailing side in the Puget Sound netpen issue; the Native Fish Society; and The Conservation Angler.

The three either wrote or signed onto a letter calling on the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Fisheries Service to withdraw its December pending approval of WDFW and three Skagit Valley tribes’ fishing plan for the system.

More pragmatic steelhead groups have offered qualified support for a season.

(As for Occupy Skagit’s concerns about “too many encounters” in a condensed fishery, that’s the reason the rivers will be monitored by state creel samplers, to gauge relative effort and success and modify any season if need be.)

The final 30-day comment period on the state and tribes’ plan wrapped up back in January, and ever since anglers on all sides have been waiting with bated breath for word from NOAA-F’s regional administrator Barry Thom one way or another on whether the rivers would open.

Certainly the feds have had more on their plate than just approving or sending back Skagit-Sauk steelhead plans this winter — there’s also been their initial review of the 10-year Puget Sound Chinook plan, plus involvement in North of Falcon salmon season setting and southern resident killer whale issues.

But the delays are rapidly narrowing the window on a fishery in the next month, and at some point we’re just going to run out of time, which is probably the end game for some parties, the unstated acceptance of others, and the increasingly grim reality for those who just want to get back on the water.

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.