Tag Archives: sauk river

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.

For Skagit-Sauk Steelheaders, It’s ‘Great To Be Back On The System’

Despite a good spring rain that doubled flows on one river, North Cascades anglers were still happy to be out chasing wild winter steelhead on another for the first time in nine Aprils.

Last weekend saw portions of the Skagit and Sauk reopen for the first of three windows this month, thanks to federal approval of a joint state-tribal fisheries plan this past Thursday.

A CLIENT OF GUIDE CHRIS SENYOHL OF INTERPID ANGLERS SHOWS OFF A WILD WINTER STEELHEAD CAUGHT DURING LAST WEEKEND’S REOPENING OF THE SKAGIT AND SAUK RIVER. (INTREPIDANGLERS.COM, VIA AL SENYOHL)

“It felt great to be back on the system,” said angler Ryley Fee.

On Saturday, he and two other anglers went four-for-four, catching and releasing steelhead to 14 pounds.

That was better than most. According to state creel data, 47 boat anglers caught 19 steelhead that day and 37 landed 15 on Sunday.

Fishing was tougher for bank anglers, with 79 only catching two over both days, samplers found.

“A few guys (in boats, using gear) caught the vast majority of fish,” said WDFW district fisheries biologist Brett Barkdull. “Those same guys were the hard-core, fish-all-day types.”

He said there were slightly more gear anglers than fly guys on the water.

“Most of the fish were caught from the (mouth of the) Sauk up to Marblemount, because flows were fine there,” he said of the dam-regulated upper Skagit River.

The Sauk jumped from 4,500 cubic feet per second Friday afternoon to 9,500 cfs by the time Saturday morning rolled around.

Barkdull estimated that, overall, 53.4 steelhead were encountered, along with another 103 bull trout. He said that his crews “caught” 63.71 percent of boaters at the launches.

As Puget Sound steelhead are listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act, intensive monitoring of the fishery is a key part of WDFW being able to hold it.

“Given all the flow issues, I think it turned out about what I would have expected,” Barkdull said.

SAUK-SKAGIT REGULATIONS
* Catch and release only
* Open dates: April 18-22, 25-29
Skagit River: Open from the Dalles Bridge in Concrete to the Cascade River Road Bridge in Marblemount. Fishing from boat under power prohibited.
Sauk River: Open from the mouth to the Sauk Prairie Road Bridge in Darrington. Fishing from a boat equipped with an internal combustion motor is prohibited.
Single-point barbless hooks
Night closures in effect
Use of bait prohibited

There was little if any effort on the Sauk, but one person apparently decided to take their sled up it, for which they received a talking to, as fishing from a power boat on this river is prohibited.

That was about in in terms of problems, however.

“Two no life jacket tickets,” said Barkdull of enforcement issues. “That’s it. Clean.”

The reopening came a little more than five years after Occupy Skagit held its first hookless fish-in at Howard Miller Steelhead Park in Rockport. With the ESA listing, WDFW and the Swinomish, Sauk-Suiattle and Upper Skagit tribes needed to write a management plan that could pass muster with the National Marine Fisheries Service. Besides a state fishery, the approved plan allows for tribal harvest of wild steelhead, though the comanagers say they won’t do so this spring.

Al Senyohl, president of the Steelhead Trout Club of Washington, had previously expressed concern about holding state and tribal seasons this spring because impacts on this year’s relatively low but still fishable forecasted return of 4,700 might affect recovery of the run and the ability to start up a broodstock program.

However, Senyohl subsequently said it did provide an opportunity for North Sound steelheaders who “have been stranded on the bank for years” to get back on the water.

He took advantage of the opener himself, fishing the Skagit at Rockport.

“Great turnout for the opener, big economic boost for the upper Skagit basin!” Senyohl reported.

Steelheaders have two more five-day windows to get on the Sauk and Skagit before the fishery closes after the month’s last Sunday.

With flows looking good, Barkdull indicated he expects good fishing with Wednesday’s restart.

Skagit, Sauk Opening For Steelhead

Spring steelheading will open on parts of the Skagit and Sauk Rivers for the first time since 2009.

AN ANGLER CASTS A LINE ON THE SKAGIT RIVER AT THE MOUTH OF THE SAUK EARLIER THIS YEAR BEFORE FISHING CLOSED AFTER JAN. 31. (CHASE GUNNELL)

Federal overseers this morning signed off on a permit allowing the state to hold the catch-and-release fishery on the big North Cascades waters over this and the coming four seasons.

“This is the most important fishery in the state to me,” said angler Ryley Fee, who was getting an early head start on the weekend. “I’m leaving tonight.”

Per WDFW HQ, here are this year’s regs:

* Open dates: April 14-15, 18-22, 25-29
*
Skagit River: Open from the Dalles Bridge in Concrete to the Cascade River Road Bridge in Marblemount. Fishing from boat under power prohibited.
*
Sauk River: Open from the mouth to the Sauk Prairie Road Bridge in Darrington. Fishing from a boat equipped with an internal combustion motor is prohibited.
*
Single-point barbless hooks
*
Night closures in effect
*
Use of bait prohibited

In a press release, regional fisheries manager Edward Eleazer advised anglers to keep an eye on his agency’s emergency rule-change notice page, as an early closure and additional restrictions might still be applied to the fishery.

“Anglers have an incredible opportunity to fish for wild steelhead on one of the renowned rivers of the West Coast,” Eleazer said. “To ensure there will be steelhead fishing in the basin for years to come, we’re asking anglers to comply with all fishery rules and to help keep the river free of litter.”

The opening is the culmination of years of lobbying by Occupy Skagit, which ironically had just recently given up hope the rivers would reopen in time this month.

According to Eleazar, cooperation from the Skagit tribes was also “essential” in getting the permit. WDFW also reports that tribal fishermen will not hold their “scheduled steelhead fisheries this year in order to limit fishery impacts.”

I don’t think I can express how huge and important of a deal that is — hat tip to the Swinomish, Sauk-Suiattles and Upper Skagits, I appreciate it.

Ultimate approval hinged on National Marine Fisheries Service regional administrator Barry Thom giving the final OK to the proposed fisheries.

“The key is that we believe the comanagers found the right balance between allowing some fishing opportunities and protecting Skagit River steelhead for the future,” said federal spokesman Michael Milstein. “The improved resilience of Skagit steelhead is a positive reflection on the many partnerships and hard work that has gone into habitat restoration and other recovery actions.”

The popular spring recreational season was halted in 2010 by a series of low forecasted returns and then written out of the regulations pamphlet because WDFW didn’t have a permit to open it due to the 2007 listing of Puget Sound steelhead.

But the past three years have averaged over 8,000 spawners, though the 2018 run is expected to be down yet still within fishable numbers.

“Stay of my rock,” joked Fee, as the fishery likely will draw a good crowd due to pent-up demand.

Under the approved plan, state managers will monitor the rivers, taking creel data. Those staffers had been ready since late winter, but the approval process has dragged on and on.

“We all would have liked to issue a decision sooner but the great value of the Skagit population required us to do a careful and complete job, and that took time,” said Milstein. “We appreciate everyone’s patience with us, and we ask for continued support as we continue toward recovery of these fish that have so much meaning to so many people across the region.”

Not every Westside angler agreed with reopening the rivers, but it provides an opportunity on a strong stock in a region where steelhead fisheries are rarer and rarer as hatchery releases tapered off and habitat issues come home to roost.

“Anglers are keenly aware of the condition of our wild steelhead rivers and can be powerful advocates for their conservation,” Trout Unlimited’s Rob Masonis said in a press release. “If we want healthy, productive rivers with resilient wild steelhead, we need to keep anglers on the water when wild steelhead populations can handle it.”

Even if I don’t have a chance to hit the Sauk and Skagit before the end of this month, I’m looking forward more than ever to 2019’s full late winter-spring season!

‘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.

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)