Tag Archives: sauk river

Thoughts On The Cancellation Of Skagit-Sauk C&R Steelhead Season

Like many North Sound steelheaders, I’m disappointed with this week’s news that not enough wild winter-runs are forecast to return to the Skagit and Sauk this year to support another catch-and-release opener.

THE SAUK RIVER FLOWS BELOW SNOWCAPPED WHITEHORSE MOUNTAIN ON A SPRING 2019 DAY SPENT FISHING FOR WILD WINTER STEELHEAD. (ANDY WALGAMOTT)

I’m also frustrated, given how much effort that I saw fellow anglers as well as state and tribal biologists and managers put into convincing federal overseers to approve the North Cascades fishery.

And angry because after just a season and a sixth on these vaunted waters in the entirety of last decade — a mere 101 days of opportunity — me and a whole lot of other devotees are right back on the bank again.

Just like where we were in January 2010.

So much for making the run out to Darrington, floating down from Marblemount, or swinging spoons or flies near Rockport and Concrete this February, March and April.

So much for another million dollars for the region, like what last season generated –$22 and change from me alone after lunching up at the IGA in the home of the Loggers.

So much for rejuvenating one’s self in the beautiful solitude of this country as winter ebbs into spring and snowfields glisten under blue skies and the willows bud and the grouse drum.

HIGHWAY 530, WHICH PARALLELS THE SAUK, SNAKES THROUGH NEWLY GREENED TREES DURING 2018’S BRIEF FISHERY. (ANDY WALGAMOTT)

Now, I am not going to sit here and pretend that I am the most aggrieved Sauk-Skagit steelheader of all time.

Yes, I have been fishing here occasionally since, I want to say, the early 2000s, but most others have far longer histories with these waters, and needless to say far, faaaaaaaar more catches.

Hell, the last thing I caught out of these rivers was a scolding last April Fools’ Day for parking in a known tweeker den so I could fish a certain run!

But I have been writing about it and the rest of Puget Sound steelheading’s highs, lows and woes over the past decade or so, and this feels like a bitter blow.

For want of a measly 38 fish …

Thirty-eight.

AN ANGLER PASSES OVER THE SAUK RIVER BRIDGE NEAR THE FOREST SERVICE PUT-IN/TAKEOUT. (ANDY WALGAMOTT)

THE PROBLEM, AS EVERYWHERE ANYMORE, is that not enough fish are returning to hold a season, and since these happen to also be listed under the Endangered Species Act they require significant protection on their road to recovery.

This year’s forecast calls for just 3,963 natives, which essentially is too few because of incidental impacts that will occur to them in other fisheries.

Overlapping the run to various degrees are state and tribal seasons targeting blackmouth, spring Chinook, sockeye and bull trout, and they have their own devotees.

The winter-spring native fishery is operated under April 2018’s Skagit River Steelhead Fishery Resource Management Plan and uses a “stepped” impact rate, which is to say that the more fish that are predicted to return, the more that can removed one way or another from the population.

Think those incidental impacts elsewhere, and catch-and-release handling mortalities and tribal harvest that are allowed under the federal permit.

To be clear, the three Skagit Basin tribes that went in with WDFW on the management plan will not be netting wild steelhead this season while we state anglers are shut down.

With runs of 8,001 or more fish, the impact rate is up to 25 percent ; for runs between 6,001 and 8,000, it’s 20 percent; for runs between 4,001 and 6,000 it’s 10 percent; and when it’s 4,000 or fewer, the rate drops to just 4 percent, which as it stands gets eaten up by other fisheries.

So mathematically it’s all quite simple, actually.

A COLD DAY ON THE RIVER. (ANDY WALGAMOTT)

BUT SCRUBBING THE SEASON WAS NOT AN EASY decision for WDFW to make, I understand.

There was the weight of the considerable time and energy that the fishing public and agency invested in getting it off the ground again — the grassroots effort known as Occupy Skagit, the institutional buy-in from staff and the Fish and Wildlife Commission, having three separate tribal nations on board, writing the plan, putting it out for comment and then getting the nervous nellies at the National Marine Fisheries Service to approve the damn thing already.

There was the forecast, soooooooo close to the line and coming at a time when any fish prediction is immediately suspect — especially given the pretty crazy new signals the North Pacific is throwing off with the rise of The Blob.

There was the low expected return of 5-year-olds, a class that typically makes up a very strong plurality of any given season’s return.

There were the almost uniformly poor early hatchery steelhead returns from southern mainland British Columbia down through Puget Sound and on the Washington Coast and Lower Columbia tribs — were those a sign of ocean productivity that could be applied to wild runs?

And there’s the fact that WDFW has been using the Skagit-Sauk season as a key example of what it calls “emergent needs” and requires a budget boost of somewhere around a couple hundred thousand bucks to perform the heavy monitoring required under the permit from NMFS because of the listing.

Throw in the watchful eyes of NMFS, and undoubtedly a lawsuit sitting on the Wild Fish Conservancy’s fax machine just waiting for Kurt Beardslee to hit send, and, well … I’m damn glad I wasn’t the one being paid to make the decision.

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

ULTIMATELY, STEWARDSHIP WON OUT and I can respect and support that.

There is a lot riding on Puget Sound’s last best stock. Under NMFS’s new recovery plan, it’s one of four separate winter steelhead populations in the North Cascades that to delist must meet set escapement goals  — 15,000 in the case of the Sauk-Skagit.

Yes, there’s a long way to go, but if this year’s forecast is actually correct, it would still be 1,000 and 1,400 more wild steelhead back to the system than the next two lowest runs: 1979’s 2,982 and 2009’s 2,502.

(WDFW)

A WDFW graph shows that those years were ultimately followed by large increases in run sizes; following the last nadir it jumped to 8,727, 9,084 and 8,644 in back-to-back-to-back years in the mid-2010s.

With good habitat in the headwaters and lots of restoration work ongoing elsewhere, carrying capacity will increase more.

Hell, if we were patient enough to sit on the bank for the eight straight seasons that a fishery wasn’t even on the table — 2010 through 2017 — what’s another year?

The wild card, though, is just how much damage The Blob wrought as it dewatered tributaries and overheated streams onshore and affected the foodweb offshore, potentially impacting a handful of year-classes.

Another year could become two, three years … more?

We’re patient, we steelheaders are, but the state of affairs with our favorite winter pastime in Pugetropolis is beyond aggravating.

The continual grinding loss of opportunities over the decades, the declining runs, the listing, the reduction in hatchery releases, pinnipeds and lawsuits eating away at the scraps that are left …

Joining our feelings of disappointment, frustration and anger is sheer utter hopelessness. We can’t take any more. The problem for the fish is so huge. Why did you ever let us start steelheading in the first place if it was all going to go to sh*t, oh lord?

God, maybe Phil Anderson should have just put us out of our misery back in 2010 when he broached the idea of “eliminating steelhead fishing in Puget Sound” in response to his agency’s budget woes.

As we know (and do we ever know), those woes are still around.

And yet while everything else has seemingly bled out, Skagit-Sauk wild steelhead are still around.

They’re an amazingly strong stock, a plastic absurdity of a fish– those in the Skagit Basin exhibit nearly 36 different life histories, three @#$%@$# dozen!

They will cycle back up and along the way be better able to adapt to the changing conditions in so many of their habitats.

One of which I occasionally visit in winter and spring, float and spoon rods in hand as bull ruffies drum up mates and the smell of cottonwood sap fills my nostrils.

A PAIR OF RODS LEAN AGAINST A MAPLE TREE ALONG THE SAUK. (ANDY WALGAMOTT)

Plan Would Stave Off Closing Skagit-Sauk Steelheading Next Spring

Updated June 24, 2019, with quote at bottom from the Wild Steelhead Coalition

Don’t hang up your Skagit-Sauk spoons, pink worms, plugs, jigs and flies again quite yet.

State fishery managers appear to have a gameplan for how to keep the rivers’ wild steelhead catch-and-release fishery open next spring, a U-turn from just a few weeks ago when it was set to be eliminated after the license fee bill that would have funded it wasn’t passed.

KEVIN RAINES AND ANDY MOSER DRIFT FISH THE MIDDLE SAUK ON A FINE SPRING DAY WITH WHITEHORSE IN THE BACKGROUND. (ANDY WALGAMOTT)

With initial support from the Fish and Wildlife Commission earlier this month, WDFW would ask state lawmakers for the money to monitor the 2020 and 2021 seasons.

They’re looking to include $547,000 in a supplemental budget request for next January’s short legislative session. A final go-no go decision will come in August.

But it’s not a slam dunk either.

If the money isn’t appropriated by the legislature, WDFW would have to scavenge from other programs to cover the federally required monitoring next year, and 2021’s season would either be reduced or eliminated.

Still, the turn-around will buoy fans of the iconic North Cascades fishery that had been closed for nine years starting in 2009 due to low runs and as they picked back up, was the subject of much work and lobbying by the Occupy Skagit movement and other anglers to get a management plan written to reopen the waters.

After an initial 12-day season in 2018, this spring saw a full three-month fishery, and while the catches weren’t great, it was still wonderful to be on the rivers again during prime time.

“Almost universally people were excited to be there, happy to be there, and extremely thankful for the opportunity to be there,” angler advocate and retired North Sound state fisheries biologist Curt Kraemer reported to the commission last weekend. “(Among the) probably 100 people I talked to, that was the commonality, and I don’t hear that a lot about outdoor recreation in this state, whether it be hunting or fishing, and I do a lot of both.”

But even as the sun shone brightly over us gear and fly, and boat and bank anglers working the glacial, mountain waters this spring, storm clouds were brewing in Olympia.

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

Funding for two years’ worth of creel sampling, enforcement and a biologist to oversee the fishery over the strong but still Endangered Species Act-listed winter-run stock was part of WDFW’s 15 percent license fee increase proposal.

But it was also on the “enhance fishing” side of the ledger, which essentially made it optional compared to things on the “maintain” side.

When the fee bill failed, tangled in issues 200 road miles to the south of the Skagit-Sauk confluence — Columbia River gillnetting policies — WDFW had to figure out how to rebalance its budget.

Even though lawmakers gave the agency $24 million in General Fund dollars to make up for not passing the license increase or Columbia salmon-steelhead endorsement, what initially was just a $7 million shortfall grew to $20 million as they heaped on new unfunded costs.

On May 30, WDFW Director Kelly Susewind sent out an email that “the current Skagit catch and release fishery will not receive funding and thus that opportunity will be eliminated.

The next morning during a Fish and Wildlife Commission conference call alarms were raised.

“It’s about as clean a fishery as you can imagine. I would really, really object to that being eliminated,” said Chairman Larry Carpenter of nearby Mount Vernon.

That got the wheels turning again.

This is about the time of year that state agencies begin to prepare their supplemental budget requests for the upcoming legislative session, and at last week’s regular meeting of the citizen oversight panel, WDFW staffers presented proposals for discussion.

It included $271,000 to monitor the 2020 Skagit-Sauk fishery, $276,000 for 2021.

“There was Commission support for that approach,” Nate Pamplin, WDFW policy director, told Northwest Sportsman this morning.

The proposal also includes $833,000 in 2020 and $854,000 in 2021 to patch up what he’s termed a “significant shortfall” in funding to monitor Puget Sound and coastal salmon fisheries — another victim of the fee bill failure.

“This request will fund staff to provide the greatest fishing opportunities possible while satisfying ESA and conservation needs,” commission documents state.

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

Money for both Skagit-Sauk steelhead and salmon monitoring is listed as coming from the state General Fund, under the proposals.

If it doesn’t pan out, though, WDFW would be left lifting couch cushions to figure out how to pay for the former fishery.

“If we don’t secure the supplemental in the first fiscal year, it’s a bit more challenging,” says Pamplin. “We’ll have already spent some money on the fishery since it opens in February and we’ll not receive final word on the supplemental budget from the legislature until mid-March. Thus, we’d need to find reductions elsewhere in the fourth-quarter of the first fiscal year to cover the expenses already incurred for opening the fishery.”

The fiscal year runs from July 1 through June 30.

“For the second fiscal year, it’s fairly straight-forward.  If we don’t secure the supplemental, the fishery would be proposed to be reduced/eliminated,” Pamplin adds.

Meanwhile online, Wayne Kline of Occupy Skagit issued a “Three Minute Steelhead Challenge” to fellow fans of the fishery to contact their legislators to build support for funding it.

From this page on the Legislature’s site you can find your district and then your state representatives’ and senator’s email addresses.

“We’re glad to hear the Commission is directing the Department to find funding for this iconic fishery,” said Rich Simms of the Wild Steelhead Coalition, “but this underscores the much larger need for committed funding from our legislature for our fish and wildlife into the future.”

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)

Rain Could Help Sauk, Skagit Steelheading Pick Up

Rain in the forecast could improve steelheading on the Sauk and Skagit Rivers next week and beyond after a slow first two months of catch-and-release fishing.

Low, clear and frigid water for most of the winter-spring season have made for tough fishing, confirmed WDFW district fisheries biologist Brett Barkdull.

DRIFT BOATERS GLIDE DOWN THE SAUK ON APRIL 1. (ANDY WALGAMOTT)

“When we got some water when the snowmelt happened (in mid-March) it got better, and then it’s dropped off again. We need rain badly — that will help the fishing,” he said.

I spent all day on the Sauk on Monday and all I had to show for it — besides uplifted spirits and a nice sunburn on my arms, though a lighter tackle box than I started out with — was a Zion Williamson-esque wading boot disaster.

It began to blow up a mile down a gravel bar and only got worse from there on the hike out.

THE SAUK NEAR ITS CONFLUENCE WITH THE SKAGIT RIVER. (ANDY WALGAMOTT)

According to the creel checker who pulled up just as I was calling it a day, just two steelhead were caught yesterday, 6- and 8-pounders caught on plugs by one drift boat.

The sampler said that four had been hooked on Sunday.

DRIFT BOATERS COME THROUGH A RIFFLE ON THE SAUK YESTERDAY. (ANDY WALGAMOTT)

“Guys pulling plugs probably are doing the best overall, but guys are catching fish on other things too,” said Barkdull.

Fishing is open under selective gear rules, and yesterday’s very scattered anglers were using a mix of jigs, beads, spoons, plugs and flies.

This is the second year in a row that late-season steelheading has resumed on the Sauk and Skagit, and it follows on a 12-day opener last April.

THE SAUK AND SKAGIT HAVE BEEN FLOWING PRETTY COLD. DESPITE RECENT WARM, SUNNY SKIES, EVIDENCE OF A FRIGID END TO WINTER COULD STILL BE SEEN IN THE STRAY PILES OF SNOW IN DITCHES AROUND DARRINGTON. (ANDY WALGAMOTT)

Last year’s best day came after a solid rain lifted the river, and the Northwest River Forecast Center is calling for the Sauk to jump to around 9,000 cubic feet per second by next Monday.

Later next week and weekend could be good, but that also depends on more fish moving in or becoming more active as the spawn — the latest in Pugetropolis — nears.

“The Sauk has been a little better than the Skagit. The Skagit below the Baker has been a good spot, though,” Barkdull said.

BUT SPRING IS ARRIVING IN THE MOUNTAINS, IF WILLOW BUDS AND THE DRUMMING OF RUFFED GROUSE IS ANY INDICATION. (ANDY WALGAMOTT)

The Skagit is open from the Dalles Bridge at Concrete up to the Cascade River Road Bridge in Marblemount. The Sauk is open from the mouth up to the Sauk Prairie Road Bridge at Darrington.

In announcing the season, WDFW warned that it was possible the fishery could close early if anglers encountered a set number of fish in the agreed-to management plan, but Barkdull said that with the low catches so far it’s extremely unlikely the fishery will close before the end of the month.

THE AFOREMENTIONED WADING BOOT DISASTER. THE BLOGGER’S PAIR OF YAKTRAX ALSO BROKE. (ANDY WALGAMOTT)

Biologists forecasted around 6,500 wild winter-runs back this year, not quite as good as returns from 2013-15 but definitely better than the 2,200 or so in 2009, which was the last year until 2018 the rivers were otherwise open this time of year.

As for the rest of this season, Barkdull has some advice for when to hit them again.

“Wait till we get some rain,” he said.

That’ll give me a little time to replace that blown-out wading boot and get back on my favorite spring river.

CLOUDS CAP WHITEHORSE MOUNTAIN OVER SWEDE HEAVEN IN THE LATE AFTERNOON LIGHT. (ANDY WALGAMOTT)

Shutdown Affecting Steelhead Season Planning, Sea Lion Management — Even A Clam Dig

Add Northwest steelheading, sea lion management and a three-day razor clam dig at a national park to the list of things being impacted by the partial US government shutdown, now in its record 26th day.

A NOAA technical consultation on Washington’s Skagit-Sauk spring season and the federal agency’s work approving Idaho’s fisheries permit are on pause, while any new pinnipeds showing up at Willamette Falls get a free pass to chow down, and the Jan. 19-21 Kalaloch Beach clam opener has been rescinded.

Let’s break things down by state.

OREGON

While ODFW can still remove previously identified California sea lions that gather at the falls and in the lower Clackamas to eat increasingly imperiled wild steelhead, new ones must first be reported to a federal administrator who has been furloughed since before Christmas due to the shutdown, according to a Courthouse News Service story.

A CALIFORNIA SEA LION THROWS A SALMONID IN SPRING 2016 AT WILLAMETTE FALLS. (ODFW)

And as native returns begin to build, a newly arrived CSL there won’t face the consequences — at least until the shutdown over the border wall is ended.

“If it carries on it will be a bigger impact on the spring Chinook run,” ODFW’s Shaun Clements told Courthouse News. “Relative to the winter steelhead, they’re in a much better place, but extinction risk for spring Chinook is still pretty high.”

So far four CSLs have been taken out since the state agency got the go-ahead in November to remove up to 93 a year. ODFW had anticipated killing 40 in the first four months of 2019.

IDAHO

Over in Idaho, what seemed like plenty of time early last month for NOAA to (finally) review and approve the Gem State’s steelhead fishing plan before mid-March is shrinking.

STEELHEAD ANGLERS FISH IDAHO’S CLEARWATER RIVER AT LEWISTON. (YO-ZURI PHOTO CONTEST)

“There is about a month of cushion between the expiration of the agreement and when we first expected the permit (to be completed),” IDFG’s Ed Schriever told Eric Barker of the Lewiston Tribune. “We know the longer (the shutdown) goes on, the narrower the window becomes on the cushion that existed prior to the shutdown. We can only hope resolution comes quickly and those folks get back to work on our permit.”

The work was made necessary by environmental groups’ lawsuit threat that resulted in an agreement between the state, a community-angler group and the litigants that provided cover to continue fishing season through either when NOAA finished processing the plan or March 15.

Schriever told Barker that if the shutdown continues, he would probably ask the parties to the agreement for an extension.

WASHINGTON

And in Washington, there’s now an agonizing amount of uncertainty for what seemed like would be a slam-dunk steelhead fishery.

DRIFT BOAT ANGLERS MAKE THEIR WAY DOWN THE SAUK RIVER DURING APRIL 2018’S FIRST-IN-NINE-SPRINGS FISHERY. (ANDY WALGAMOTT)

Last month, WDFW along with tribal comanagers sent a plan for a three-month-long catch-and-release season for wild winter-runs on the North Sound’s Skagit and Sauk Rivers under the same constraints as last April’s NOAA-approved 12-day fishery.

Before the shutdown, NOAA had some “relatively minor matters” to clear up, so a meeting was scheduled for last week “to resolve the technical questions,” according to a Doug Huddle column for our February issue.

“We have approval to conduct the fishery. We have a set of conditions we have to fulfill as part of that approval. We think we have provided everything asked,” said district biologist Brett Barkdull.

But with NOAA out of the office it will come down to an upcoming policy call “one way or the other” by higher-ups at WDFW based on a risk assessment.

Out on Washington’s outer coast, WDFW is scrubbing three days of razor clam digging at Kalaloch Beach over the Martin Luther King Jr. Weekend.

With federal techs and park rangers furloughed, WDFW had planned on having its staff on the beach to monitor clammers as well as station game wardens on Highway 101, where they do have enforcement authority, if need be.

“We are closing Kalaloch beach to razor clam digging in response to a request by Olympic National Park,” said Dan Ayres, agency coastal shellfish manager, in a press release. “Olympic National Park staff are not available to help ensure a safe and orderly opening in the area.”

Digs will go on as planned this Thursday-Monday during the various openers at Twin Harbors, Mocrocks and Copalis Beaches.

Ayres said that WFDW and the park will consider other openers at Kalaloch to make up for the lost harvest opportunity.

Elsewhere, while Pacific Fishery Management Council staffers are in their offices, that’s not the case for federal participants in the 2019 North of Falcon salmon-season-setting process.

US contributions to an international report on commercial West Coast hake fishing as well as other work handled by researchers at the Northwest Fisheries Science Center in Seattle is on hold.

A meeting on highly migratory species and another with members of a statistical review committee have been cancelled, though at the moment a third reviewing 2018 salmon fisheries and which is part of the annual North of Falcon season-setting process is still a go.

And NOAA survey ships have reportedly also been tied up to the dock.

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.