Tag Archives: WILD STEELHEAD

Oregon Fish Commission To Decide On SW Wild Steelhead Retention Ban Proposal

A few years back I was shocked when a major player in the Northwest fishing world told me that wild steelhead should be open for harvest.

In a region where nates are venerated, where reverence for intact adipose fins is strong, and where some returns are troubled, it felt like sacrilege.

But the angler was also speaking to waters where wild runs are strong enough to sustain limited take.

WHETHER OR NOT TO CONTINUE THE LIMITED HARVEST OF WILD WINTER STEELHEAD ON EIGHT SOUTHERN OREGON RIVERS AND TWO CREEKS IS UP FOR A DECISION BY THE FISH AND WILDLIFE COMMISSION. CARSON AND MATT BREESE CAUGHT THIS HOOK-BENDING 39.5-INCHER EARLY IN THE 2016 SEASON. (YO-ZURI PHOTO CONTEST)

That appears to be the case on 10 Southern Oregon streams, where ODFW allows fishermen to keep one winter-run a day and three to five a season, but some anglers are petitioning the Fish and Wildlife Commission to end that practice.

“… Taking a precautionary approach to ensure wild steelhead thrive into the future, well before populations collapse, is needed,” write Harvey Young, Jim Dunlevy, Dustin Russell, Mark Gasich and Josh Terry.

They say releasing wild fish for others to catch increases opportunities and participation, that large steelhead anglers are more likely to keep are important contributors to the gene pool, the fishery is important to maintaining the local economy and the move would simplify the regulations.

Pointing to what they consider decreased monitoring as well as large-scale environmental disruptions in recent years — the blob, Chetco Bar Fire — they write, ” … It is in the best interest of the agency, anglers, local businesses, and Oregonians to limit the impacts to sensitive fish populations in the case of uncertainty and help ensure that the Southwest Zone wild steelhead populations sustain robust recreational fisheries now and in the future.”

A number of anglers, many from California, also support it.

Not everyone agrees, however.

A board member of the Northwest Sportfishing Industry Association says it’s a”self-serving draconian push by a handful of people seemingly dead set on running the average Joe off our river.”

That’s what Grants Pass native and tackle seller Dave Strahan wrote and NSIA shared on Facebook earlier today.

In addition to a number of counties, cities, a tourist board and 500 individuals signing onto a counter proposal to continue wild harvest, Wild Rivers Fishing owner-operator Andy Martin (who, full disclosure, occasionally advertises in this magazine) opposes the petition.

“I admire and respect petitioner Harvey Young and his desire to protect winter steelhead on the Chetco and other Oregon rivers, but feel a change to the fishing regulations is unwarranted and has no scientific basis,” Martin wrote to the commission. “ODFW staff has not made any finding that wild winter steelhead in Southwestern Oregon are in need of increased harvest restrictions to maintain sustainable populations.”

For their part, state biologists say, “All indications show that there is not a conservation concern.”

In recommending the petition be denied, they say that spawning ground and juvenile fish numbers suggest a stable steelhead population, and that numbers are only limited by habitat issues.

Concerns about wild steelhead can be addressed in an upcoming conservation plan for several fish species, ODFW says.

The Fish and Wildlife Commission will make the final call when it meets later this week in Bandon.

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.

Forks Float Follies: WDFW River Patrol Turns Up Violations, Amusing And Otherwise

When her husband was recently caught fishing illegally, a Forks-area woman took it as an unexpected shopping opportunity and urged game wardens to throw the book at him.

Details come from the WDFW Director’s Report to the Fish and Wildlife Commission, out ahead of this week’s meetings.

According to it, Sgt. Kit Rosenberger and Fish and Wildlife Officer Bryan Davidson were on a float patrol down the Sol Duc when they spotted three lines in the river in front of a riverside house.

Inspecting the business end of the lines, the officers found the fishing gear to be rigged with something a bit more lethal than the allowed single barbless hook as well.

WDFW reports that when the man came out of his garage, he allegedly admitted to being in the wrong and fishing with more than one rod.

Somewhere around here, his wife’s ears perked up.

She “told the officers to write her husband for everything they had, because he made a deal with her that if he got a ticket she could spend the same amount of money on something nice for herself,” according to WDFW.

Here’s hoping the violations aren’t dismissed or reduced by Clallam County District Court!

As it turns out, that wasn’t the only violation that Rosenberger and Davidson found on their float.

A ways down the Duc they spotted a man who hastily cranked in his line, hid his gear in a tree and then tried to claim he hadn’t been fishing.

That was never going to fly with the watchful wardens, and the man did allegedly confess, “telling the officers that he had decided to never buy a fishing license again and that he would just take what was coming to him,” WDFW reports.

That turned out to be citations for fishing without a license as well as fishing with unlawful tackle.

No word if his significant other also won a shopping spree, but those who vow to do similar for various grievances should be on notice.

But Rosenberger’s and Davidson’s day wasn’t done.

Down on the Quillayute they came across two guys and a gal with five rods out, which by our calculations is two too many fish sticks.

Not only that but as officers interviewed the father, son and the father’s girlfriend, they found all sorts of further fun.

The son was allegedly fishing without a license, and when Rosenberger and Davidson interviewed the father and woman, the son took it as an opportunity to run away.

As the officers poked around the trio’s camp, they then found two dead wild steelhead, which are illegal to retain, as well as an undersized cutthroat.

According to WDFW, the father and girlfriend would not admit to possessing let alone catching any steelhead.

They might have been able to make a better argument if there wasn’t also “a large amount of fish blood on [the father’s] pants.”

The guy tried to claim it was from a hand wound, but when the sergeant reminded him about DNA testing, he allegedly finally admitted he’d caught one of the wild steelhead and his son had caught the other.

And just to make it three for three, WDFW reports, “All five rods being fished were equipped with unlawful fishing gear.”

They were seized, tickets were written, no shopping sprees were awarded.

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.

Contrasting Videos Highlight Plight Of Westside Steelhead, Fisheries

Steelhead videos out in recent days both bemoan the same thing — a lack of fish returning to Western Washington — but come from disparate perspectives.

A slick series produced by the Wild Steelhead Coalition contrasts sharply with a 13-minute preview piece cobbled together by Restore the Cowlitz, but they both recall a great past, focus on the poor present, and call for a better future, but through, literally, different lenses.

I appreciate them both, as they show a fire in the belly that is lacking when it comes to most of Washington’s other stocks, a deep concern for the resource and the real impacts policy decisions have on fish populations and people’s livelihoods.

The former, dubbed “Steelhead Country,” leads off with the downfall of Puget Sound steelheading, listing a number of rivers no longer open for all or part of the seasons due to plummeting native returns, and focuses on the experiences of the iconic Bill Herzog.

A SCREEN GRAB FROM “STEELHEAD COUNTRY, PART I,” SHOWS BILL HERZOG ON THE BANKS OF THE MCMILLAN DRIFT, ON THE PUYALLUP RIVER, AT ONE TIME ONE OF THE BEST SPOTS IN ALL OF PUGETROPOLIS TO CATCH WINTERS, BUT NOW CLOSED. (WILD STEELHEAD COALITION)

He loads some of the downfall on his own back: “We killed too many fish. Again, horrible management, they allowed us to take two fish, wild fish, till the end of April, ad naseum … My little squad, we killed 200 out of the Nisqually alone, just us, just us, 10 guys, killed 200. Easy. Let’s see, if we did that, wouldn’t take much, would it?”

The third video in the six-part series (the back half hasn’t been released at this writing) looks at “The Hatchery Fix,” which highlights the striking success WDFW’s predecessor’s increased stocking had, producing a “ten-fold” leap in the catch between 1947 and 1963, but also how that likely clubbed the heck out of the early part of the wild run, “which historically was the peak of the run.”

DEANNA WILSON HOISTS HER FIRST STEELHEAD, A SKYKOMISH HATCHERY WINTER-RUN. (FISHING PHOTO CONTEST)

Fixing the hatchery runs is what “Project Cowlitz” aims for, pointing out the deep economic impacts the end of releases of early-timed winter steelhead into the Cowlitz has caused.

According to another Washington fishing icon, guide Clancy Holt, where in the past he normally would have run four guides and pulled in $300,000 from mid-November to mid-February, yielding some $24,000 in state sales tax, this past winter, his operation ran two trips for $2,000 and collected just $150 in sales tax.

IN THIS SCREENGRAB FROM RESTORE THE COWLITZ’S NEW VIDEO “PROJECT COWLITZ,” LOCAL GUIDE CLANCY HOLT TALKS ABOUT ECONOMIC IMPACTS FROM THE LOSS OF THE EARLY-RETURNING STEELHEAD TO THE RIVER. (RESTORE THE COWLITZ)

He’s echoed by guides Dave Mallahan, Mark Youngblood and others, while Derek Breitenbach of Ethel Market & Sports details the dropoff in winter business at his Lewis County shop.

“This isn’t working,” Holt says, adding, “There has got to be a way to generate another run of fish in the winter from November to the middle of February — steelhead in the Cowlitz River.”

It would take time — a whole lot of time and even some fishery restrictions (not to mention a few more fish) — but I wonder if it isn’t possible to begin creating an early-returning strain out of the basin’s endemic late stock, recovering that temporal span that winters once covered.

I’m not a biologist, so I can’t say how possible that even is, but as a steelheader and someone who’s been writing about the decline for some time now, there’s a lot of good stuff in these videos, and I appreciate the passion both filmmakers put into them.

Is one righter than the other?

I just know that I need fish for all of us to fish for, and while I do see positive signs here and there on the wild front, I also know that today’s rivers have carrying capacities that will never get us back to late 1800s abundances. I do look forward to seeing what sort of solutions “Steelhead Country” proposes in its upcoming releases, but as pared back as hatchery releases have become, they’re essential bridges as habitat work continues and we work to figure out other problems affecting the survival of all of our favorite fish.

Hat tip to all, you rock for Doing Something.