With the traditional kickoff of winter steelhead season in Western Washington dead ahead, one of the salesmen here wanted me to map the Skagit River.
Why, I laughed. Nobody fishes its 78 miles anymore — how about the lower 4,500 feet of its tributary, the Cascade, instead?
That would be far more valuable as that’s where all the fish are caught these days.
Not entirely true, of course, but in this Brave New World Of Puget Sound Steelheading, it might as well be.
Last season, the cold trickle of the Cascade yielded 544 hatchery winter-runs, according to very preliminary catch stats from the Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife, while the platter-profiled Skagit below there gave up 90.
No, not a misprint — nine-zero.
It marks the official overturning of How Things Used To Be on the Skagit, and serves as further evidence about how in just the past few years the face of the fishery in Pugetropolis has altered for good.
“What you see is what it is likely to be forever,” says WDFW’s district fisheries biologist Brett Barkdull in La Conner, “or until the planting strategies are changed.”
ONCE UPON A TIME, the Skagit was the king of all Puget Sound steelhead streams — I shit you not, anglers carded 20,916 there in winter 1963-64.
That was back when you could keep nates, of course, but even 10 years ago, it easily exceeded the Cascade, pumping out 2,036 to its trib’s 777 in winter 2001-02.
In the seasons afterwards the catches narrowed and for two winters the Cascade was even on top by a narrow margin before being overtaken in the mid-2000s.
But the prince has since dethroned the emperor.
In 2008-09, the score was 143-204, Cascade-Skagit; the next, it was just about even, 130-122.
Then last season the Cascade’s catch mushroomed while the Skagit’s sagged to the lowest it’s ever been.
Actually, at first, my pet theory was that fuel-pump economics and the recession were prime factors for the Skagit’s declining share. It is not a short drive between the area’s population centers and the river’s prime fishing grounds and boat ramps. True, it’s even further to the Cascade, but that’s a bank-only opportunity — take the wife’s car, save on gas.
And while that may be part of it, it’s not the entire answer.
“Some of it is simply effort, or lack there of, on the Skagit. Effort is driven by catches, people go where they catch fish,” says Barkdull.
Whether it set the tone for the rest of winter is debatable, but at the start of last season a handful of anglers did very well on the Cascade.
“There are several cards with large numbers in November and December – 16 fish, couple of 15s, a 13,” says WDFW’s catch-record manager Eric Kraig. “Kind of wish I’d known about it a little sooner … like last November.”
THAT IS NOW, THIS WAS WHEN: Back in The Glory Days, WDFW put steelhead smolts just about anywhere they could snake a tanker truck to water’s edge.
“I’m not sure I could even tell you all the places steelhead were once planted in the Skagit mainstem, and Sauk as well,” says the biologist who is also a hardcore angler and Master Hunter himself. “A few places I remember include Davis Slough, Grandy Creek, Jackman Creek, Sutter Creek, Bacon Creek, at every bridge on the Sauk.”
Talk about something worth mapping!
The fish’s instincts to return back to those points helped distribute fishing pressure throughout the system, but over the years it also gave some folks worse and worse cases of heartburn.
Then in 2007, Puget Sound steelhead were listed for protection under the Endangered Species Act.
At first it wasn’t clear exactly how things would change, but four years in, the fog has parted.
Seasons have become shorter and shorter to protect native steelhead, and hatchery production has been reduced — 50 percent on the Skagit when Seattle City Light’s dam relicensing mitigation money dried up after 2007.
And nowadays the Skagit’s quarter million smolts are only let loose at two locations: some in the short Baker River, most in the equally abbreviated Cascade.
It makes for some murderously efficient steelheading — which is good and bad.
“Because most of the fish are released at the hatchery now instead of trucked to other places and released, the fish all make a beeline to the hatchery combat zone,” says Barkdull. “Then they stop in the low, clear Cascade River, mingle around, and get caught. You hardly get a chance at them in the Skagit until clear up by the mouth of the Cascade, they are moving up so fast.”
IT’S THE SAME STORY across Pugetropolis.
Ten years ago in my home waters, the Snohomish River system, not only were smolts released from three hatchery facilities, but also set free in Canyon Creek and the Pilchuck, Raging, Tolt, Sultan and North Fork Skykomish Rivers.
I caught perhaps one of the last from the North Fork, just down from the town of Index. Must’ve been winter ’07-08. It bit a jig that cold morning.
Having apparently not boned up on the stocking stats — which would have showed me there was no release for that winter — I came back the next season and found the river, for all intents and purposes, “vacant water.”
That term appeared in an article we published exactly two years ago this month to describe the fall of streams like the North Fork, Pilchuck and Tolt, and rise of short, stubby, crowded terminal zone fisheries like the Cascade and Wallace.
In the lead to that piece I wrote:
In the coming winters, the Wallace River will go from a little sideshow along Highway 2 to one of Western Washington’s major steelhead fisheries.
Not because it’s some sort of zipperlip steelheading paradise (though it did have a good year two seasons back), or the state’s going to bump the releases.
Rather, it will be a case of addition by subtraction.
The Wallace, which is a tributary of the mighty Skykomish, is one of the few streams in northern Puget Sound that has a fish trap. And with recent changes in steelhead management here, rivers without the devices will no longer get smolts.
“We’ve moved to on-site releases, like winter-runs in the Snoqualmie from Tokul Creek (hatchery), and discontinued plants in tributaries,” explains statewide steelhead manager Heather Bartlett. “There’s no way to collect adults when they return to off-site stations.”
The idea is to keep hatchery steelhead from breeding with the wild stock.
True, we’ll still find some clipped fish in places like the mainstem Skagit. Barkdull jokes that guide John Koenig probably accounted for half of its 90 winter-runs last year, which he also bets were almost entirely landed in the 10-mile Marblemount-to-Rockport drift immediately below the Cascade.
But downstream waters once lined with steelheaders will continue to empty, becoming vacant banks and vacant drifts.
That’s the case on the entire Puyallup — as recently as 1984, the best river in the state.
For all intents and purposes, the January 2009 flood was the last time smolts were let go here (all of 15 were retained last winter from that year-class), and with budget cuts, the state has discontinued production on the system.
The Green, the next stream to the north and second only to the Skagit in ’63-64, saw an 80 percent reduction in releases for this season.
Basinwide, WDFW has cut winter and summer steelhead production in half the last three years alone.
Perversely, the reduction might actually help adult returns.
“Five hundred thousand was too many (smolts to release in the Skagit),” says Barkdull. “Survival rates on hatchery steelhead are much better at lower levels. We didn’t see more adults at those high planting rates. It is hard to determine what an optimum release size should look like on the Skagit because of all the variables, but it is probably somewhere between 250,000 and 350,000 in reality.”
As long as WDFW only lets the bulk of those loose in the Cascade, the trib will continue to reign in the Skagit Basin — even more so in fall and winters when high flows suck them up the mainstem in a hurry and then low flows trap them in the Cascade or just downstream in the eddies where they’re “extremely vulnerable to fishing,” says Barkdull.
If history is any guide, when the Cascade drops on the backside of this week’s rains, it should be Fish On! at Marblemount and Marblemount alone for jig and drift fishermen.
And if history is another guide, WDFW will continue to have trouble collecting enough fish for broodstock needs — the first closure notice for hatchery-area waters of the season just rolled out as I finish up this blog.
More and more, this is what winter steelheading is coming to in Puget Sound.