Maybe it’s that we’re so close to the winter solstice or just the times we live in, but a glance back over the decade in Northwest fishing and hunting seems like a bleak undertaking.
Viewed through the lens of late December 2019, recent years’ sharp salmon and steelhead declines stand out starkly against an angry red and orange blob in the North Pacific.
Yet looking further back, we did in fact enjoy some outlandishly strong Chinook, sockeye, steelhead and pink salmon fishing over the past 10 years, and there were also bright spots in terms of the growth of fishing for alternative species, big game hunting, wildlife reintroductions and land acquisitions.
After going back over my annual years in review since 2010, here’s a look at what I consider to be many of the most important stories for Northwest sportsmen during what was a decade of transition:
STORY OF THE DECADE
To steal from Charles Dickens, 2015 was a tale of two wildly different years, at once the best of times and ushering in the worst. Even as a record fall Chinook return turned their noses south towards the Columbia, the seeds of destruction in the form of The Blob were metastasizing out of control.
In the years leading up to mid-decade, there had grown this idea that maybe there was a major factor besides nebulous and oft-blamed “ocean conditions” that were messing with our fish runs. Researchers had noticed that many Puget Sound smolts never made it out of the inland sea, that harbor seals were taking a sizeable bite. Up and down the coast, sea lions, terns, cormorants and all of the other piscivores lurking in the rivers and estuaries also came under sharp suspicion.
Meanwhile, in late 2013, way, waaaay out off our coast, it was like the North Pacific read about the theory, turned to the Bering Sea and said, “Hold my beer.”
The record marine heat wave in the North Pacific in 2014 and 2015 led to a winter without snowpack, a summer of overheated streams, fish disease and gigantic conflagrations, followed by a quartet of atmospheric rivers. It rearranged forage, sent bizarre tropical species our way, and was a hammer blow for fish and wildlife in a region that has seen massive habitat alterations over the better part of a century and a half of settlement, compounding all the factors that have diminished the runs and herds.
A quarter of a million sockeye cooked in the Columbia; 3.2 million acres — much in key winter range — burned in back-to-back Washington and Oregon wildfire seasons; there were coastwide shellfish closures and massive, sweeping, never-seen-before summer angling restrictions as ODFW and WDFW did what little they could to protect salmon, steelhead and trout; and widespread drought and bluetongue struck Eastside deer herds.
Effects linger to this day.
We can rail all we want about the commercials, the tribes and all the other bogeymen, but The Blob and its evil children that keep popping up were a savage reminder of the all-around importance of the Pacific to our region’s fish and game. It was a warning that we cannot continue to put more and more of our eggs in the basket of wild hopes because it is guaranteed that more marine heat waves will strike.
I don’t know what to do about something that big, but I do still have hope for Northwest fish stocks. They are cyclical. That’s something we tend to forget in our expectation of Constant Runs.
It may take awhile but the returns will rebuild. In the meanwhile we need to make better strategic partnerships with those who have the same basic interests as we do in terms of habitat and production because nobody else here really truly gives a damn, despite politicians’ lip service. Their impetus is not to fix but to do the minimum necessary while continuing to be able to tear fish and wildlife habitat apart. Yet our teaming up with like-minded folks will help mitigate against the depths of future lows, and we’ll all benefit from the highs.
THE HIGHEST OF HIGHS
Speaking of, those really, really were the good old days — three back-to-back-to-back mid-decade summers and falls that saw record runs of Chinook to the Columbia: 1.27 million in 2013, 1.16 million in 2014, and 1.3 million in 2015.
That last year produced staggeringly huge sport catches of 36,535 fall kings at Buoy 10, 41,866 on the Lower Columbia, 13,260 from Bonneville to Highway 395 and 35,432 in the Hanford Reach.
For Oregon anglers, 2014 glittered with 437,079 salmon put on ice, the most since the “Baby’s Got Back” era, 1992’s 583,809. That year saw better than a million coho to the Columbia.
And 2013 was no slouch, yielding a recreational harvest of 1,125,794 salmon of all stocks in Washington’s salt- and freshwaters, the single biggest haul all the way back to — break out Grandma and Grandpa’s disco ball and Rocky VHS tapes! — 1976 and its 1.75 million.
Further back, the “handle” of 20,451 steelhead (mostly keepers plus wilds released) on the Columbia below Bonneville in July 2012, was an all-time one-month record, topping 18,516 set the previous August.
Sockeye runs skyrocketed, thanks to improvements on the Canadian side of the Okanogan/Okanagan River, and 2014’s Columbia sport harvest of 50,721 was higher than four entire runs that entered the big river in the previous decade.
Speaking of sockeye, Baker Lake catch inequities in recent years aside, as one angler pointed out to the Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission last Saturday morning in Bellingham, isn’t it wonderful to be able to bitch and moan about sport and tribal harvest imbalances when there wasn’t even a fishery before 2010? From zilch, rec plunkers on the Skagit and trollers on the lake have bonked 113,074 over the past 10 years.
And then there were my little darling humpies, which in 2013 provided better than half a million for our smokers and an all-fleet catch of 2.7 million — the highest back to 1963.
How. Soon. We. Forget.
THE LOWEST LOWS
We forget because of how far things have dropped off since those glory years and how long it’s been since the last major downcycle in salmon populations. Even in 2015 there were clear signs of a pending drop as Columbia coho crashed and Puget Sound’s silvers and pinks came in very undersized.
In the following years, Snake and Upper Columbia steelhead, B-runs, Oregon Coast coho, Snohomish coho, Puget Sound pinks, Lower Columbia coho, South Sound chums, North Oregon Coast Chinook — you name the stock and it has likely seen protective closures or tight restrictions given low forecasts, piddling returns and poor stream conditions and the need to reach broodstock and/or wild spawning escapement goals.
Yet while the ocean deserves much of the blame for the decline, some of it is also manmade. Where in December 2011 the Cowlitz yielded 4,304 hatchery winter-runs, WDFW’s most recent catch report for the river lists not a single one hooked …
Cowlitz River – I-5 Br downstream – 2 bank rods had no catch.
Above the I-5 Br – 5 bank rods released one coho jack. 1 boat/4 rods released two adult coho and a coho jack.
… a function of a mandated end of early-returning Chambers Creek smolt releases in the Columbia and a switch to late-timed in-basin steelhead to comply with the Endangered Species Act.
On the Oregon Coast, winter steelhead releases were shifted out of the Kilchis, Big Elk and South Fork Coquille to nearby streams under the Coastal Multi-Species Conservation and Management Plan. On Washington’s North Coast, wild steelhead retention ended on the last eight streams, where more protective gear restrictions were also instituted, both momentous changes as stocks there declined.
Not long after the Cascade River overtook the mainstem Skagit for winter catch supremacy on that system, hatchery steelhead releases were entirely halted there through the WDFW-Wild Fish Conservancy lawsuit settlement, which also reduced stocking on the Snoqualmie. And on the Sky, Skamania summers will be phased out in the coming years through another agency-WFC settlement.
Yes, the Sauk, an important wild chromer fishery, was reopened after a long struggle by anglers and festering by the feds, but overall, it feels like steelheading in the Northwest is a shadow of what it was at the start of the decade, which itself was a dim echo of the now-distant past.
The year 2015 was notable for not just The Blob’s effects on fish; it also saw an inordinately large big game harvest. Idaho mule deer, whitetail and elk takes set high marks for the entire decade — despite all those woofs running around the Gem State — and Washington hunters killed just over 40,000 deer across all seasons, the most since 2004 — despite all those woofs running around the Evergreen State. (Washington also saw a best-in-a-decade-and-a-half elk harvest of 9,150 in 2012).
Mild winters leading up to fall 2015 certainly helped shelter fawns and calves that might have otherwise succumbed to the elements or predators, while the snow drought in the mountains and fires in certain areas that year might have made bucks more available to hunters than they would have normally been. Permit levels, late season dates and antler restriction tweaks likely had an impact too.
But just as with The Blob and Columbia salmon, harvests cratered afterwards in Washington, which saw its combined deer kill for 2017 drop to its lowest level since 1997, likely due to the fewest hunters heading afield, lingering hangover from 2015’s high harvest, bluetongue, drought and harsher winters hitting the herds.
I could literally write a three-volume book about wolves in the Northwest this decade, but I want to get this posted before Christmas, so we’ll save that for another day. Suffice it to say that where there were just a couple dozen and a handful of packs in Washington and Oregon in 2010, today there are hundreds and dozens, respectively, as the long-legged lopers bred and spread across the region from reintroductions in Central Idaho and Yellowstone, and rebuilding packs in British Columbia and Northwest Montana.
It caused all sorts of disruption as depredations mounted, state managers were called on to kill offending packs, poachers took their toll, ranchers and others justifiably shot wolves attacking stock, North-central Washington tribes began hunting them on and off their reservations, and hardcore wolf lovers went utterly off the rails with death threats that forced the cancellation of a series of public meetings in Washington this fall.
What is this I keep hearing about bringing griz back to the North Cascades?
Whether it’s to escape cougar, bear and now wolf predation in their “normal” summer and winter ranges, canopies of maturing forests growing in and reducing forage, a growing tolerance for humans and their habits, or just the easy, year-round grits to be had, more and more elk are turning up on the lowlands in the Northwest.
Herds have taken up residence in the Skagit Valley and Wallowa County farmlands, as well as Oregon’s North Coast towns along Highway 101 and further up the scenic byway in Sequim, causing all sorts of headaches for state wildlife managers who must deal with damage complaints from residents and agricultural producers alike. In the case of the Skagit elk, strong tribal interests in maintaining the herd throw in another wrinkle.
Spurred by its legislature, ODFW’s answer beginning next year are lengthy general antlerless damage seasons targeting cows and calves on private lands the Willamette Valley, eastern Columbia Gorge counties, and lowland areas near La Grande, John Day, Milton Freewater, Roseburg and Medford.
Smaller in stature and not as destructive, mule deer have also moved into Bend, Republic and other towns and their outskirts, probably for the same reasons as elk elsewhere in the region. Cougar and bear, coyote encounters seem to have increased in outlying towns, bedroom communities and the suburbs. Something besides humans moving into critter territory appears to be at play.
What began late last decade with reports of limping elk with damaged and deformed hooves in Southwest Washington spread through the 2010s to more than a dozen of counties west of the Cascades, leapt across the crest into Klickitat and Walla Counties and has been confirmed south of the Columbia across much of the northern tier of Oregon and east of the Snake near Whitebird, Idaho.
Some believe it is linked to timber companies’ use of herbicides to tamp down plants that compete with valuable Douglas fir, but working with diagnostic labs WDFW pins the blame on treponeme bacteria. A research center is under construction at Washington State University-Pullman after concerned lawmakers tasked the College of Veterinary Medicine there with looking into causes and what might be done about the problem.
Tribes took the bull, er, bucks, does and fawns by the horns, reintroducing pronghorn into South- and North-central Washington. Hundreds of antelope from Nevada herds were set free on the Yakama and Colville Reservations and have since spread onto adjacent state and private lands.
The Nez Perce also brought coho back to the Grande Ronde system and their Snake River fall Chinook reintroduction reached a high point at mid-decade with record returns and redds.
High numbers of fellow marine mammals were found to be taking significant bites out of Puget Sound orcas’ dinner, primarily Chinook, starving them, the plight of which was encapsulated by stirring and sad footage of a mother killer whale pushing her dead baby around the inland sea for two and a half weeks and another observed with “peanut head,” a sign of malnutrition, before it too died.
As Washington state legislators moved to try and increase the abundance of kings and their prey, and reduce vessel noise and contaminants to help the orcas, lawmakers in DC tweaked the Marine Mammal Protection Act to allow the states and tribes to kill as many as 920 California sea lions and 249 Steller sea lions in portions of the Columbia and its salmon-bearing tributaries. Will anyone have the same stomach to deal with Puget Sound harbor seals?
Worries about how big of a bite out of salmonid smolts another toothsome species might take grew with the discovery that pike had reached Lake Roosevelt in 2011. Likely flushed out of the Pend Oreille River and British Columbia waters by high spring runoff, state, tribal and utility managers have made a concerted effort to prevent northerns from getting into the anadromous zone and the mouth of the Okanogan. Per the Colville Tribes, 13,000 have been netted or caught by anglers for cash since 2015, including a 28.2-pounder in the Roosevelt’s Sanpoil Arm this past spring.
Despite the clear and present danger the species poses, some dipsh*t illegally released pike into Lake Washington, where at least one is still on the loose — not to mention unwanted walleye.
We’ve long known rearing habitat and ocean conditions were critical for fish, but over the past decade the importance of water chemistry crystalized. Mystified by why coho were dying in urban streams before they could spawn, researchers narrowed their list of suspects down from stormwater runoff to particles wearing off of our vehicles’ tires. They also found that running the dirty water through a super simple soil mix of sand, compost, gravel and bark could negate its toxic effect on coho.
Not so easy to fix, however, is all the chemicals — legal and otherwise — we’re putting into our bodies that are then making it through wastewater treatment plants and into fish and other downstream beings. “The fish became … I hate to use the word ‘happy,’ but … became less concerned about being in the open where they could be eaten by other fish. Mainly because the compounds, these anti-depressants, had altered their mood and made them less afraid,” Sam Chan told OPB. The problem was highlighted by a seriously stoned “Chinook” named Sammy hitting up late night talk show host Stephen Colbert for a large loan and a little pick-me-up in the form of polluted water from Puget Sound.
Columbia salmon reforms born out of compromise by then Oregon Governor John Kitzhaber in 2012 to hold off a vote banning gillnets and which aimed to prioritize recreational angling and switch commercial gear on the big river were paused and even rolled back in the following years, infuriating sportfishing interests who actively worked to scuttle a WDFW license fee increase this past spring. It’s a thrown bone, but barbless restrictions implemented through the reforms were lifted this year.
Washington’s Wild Fish Conservancy and Oregon’s Native Fish Societies switched their Lawsuitenators to full-auto, strafing the feds and states with a number of low-hanging-fruit court cases in their anti-hatchery jihad, targeting salmon and steelhead production in Western Oregon, Puget Sound and the Columbia system.
After WFC teamed up with Patagonia to make a movie about the evils of artificial production, starving southern resident killer whale grandmas were heard on sonar crying, “But Mr. Beardslee, Mr. Chouinard, it will take 100 years to restore JUST the estuaries for Chinook and our pods are hungry today.”
Indeed, as salmon runs diminished, allocation fights grew more intense at North of Falcon, with 2016’s negotiations going into “uncharted waters” when WDFW and Western Washington tribes couldn’t come to an agreement by mid-April of that year and talks dragged on for nearly a month and a half longer than usual, forcing the closure of some state fisheries in the meanwhile and initially scrubbing summer and fall coho seasons in the salt and many rivers due to low expectations. Even as some anglers try to pry open the doors into NOF deal-making, others have joined their old adversaries to form the Billy Frank Jr. Salmon Coalition.
2016 also saw the closure of the popular and very productive Skokomish hatchery Chinook fishery due to a dispute with a local tribe over the southern boundary of their reservation. With negotiations going nowhere, WDFW this year appealed to the Department of Interior to set aside the Solicitor General opinion that triggered the episode after its investigators found it was “factually and legally deficient.”
Crabbers enjoyed their best decade ever on Puget Sound following a 2010 Fish and Wildlife Commission policy shift that benefited the rec fleet, with some years yielding twice as many pounds of delicious Dungeness as seasons in the previous 10 years.
Of course these days no good thing lasts forever, as there has been no crab season in South Sound waters for the past two years following a collapse of the population, with excessive harvest, poor water conditions, and the distance larva must ride currents from primary breeding areas being eyed as culprits. Yet before he retired, WDFW crab manager Don Velasquez voiced “some hope for 2020 in Marine Areas 11 and 13.
DOWN CAME THE DAMS … FOR AWHILE
Dam removal gathered steam in the early years of the decade, with another on the Rogue, a pair on the Elwha, and one on both the White Salmon and Hood among the most notable that were taken down, opening up long-blocked spawning and rearing habitat. Chinook, coho, steelhead and other stocks immediately began moving up the Elwha while the release of sediments in its former reservoirs transformed the river’s delta.
An agreement was also reached to decommission four dams on the Klamath, though federal and state regulators have slowed the process, while four on Washington’s lower Snake remain stubbornly in place.
RISE OF ALTERNATIVE FISHERIES
Perhaps in response to the declines of other stocks or just changing angling mores in the Northwest, fishing for walleye, kokanee, shad and albacore took off in the 2010s. In fact, this year saw the highest tuna catch yet, over 100,000 landed off the Oregon Coast, a 50-plus percent larger haul than the next closest year, 2012. With the relatively high cost of boats capable of targeting the pelagic species, numerous express charters are now available for day trips out of various ports to the tuna grounds and back.
Meanwhile, what once was primarily a spring and summer opportunity, kokanee are now targeted nearly year-round on the region’s stocked reservoirs, while John Grubenhof’s February 2014 breaching of the mystical 20-pound mark only fueled the trophy and eater walleye fishery on the Columbia.
And perhaps responding to better in-river spawning and rearing and ocean feeding conditions for them than salmonids, shad set back to back run records of 6 million and 7 million up the Columbia in 2018 and 2019. Estimates for this year’s fishery have yet to come out, but last year a quarter million of the East Coast imports were caught below Bonneville, a high mark for the sport fishery.
In 2013 the region’s largest private timber company began charging for access to its lands in Western Washington and Oregon, beginning with the popular and productive Vail Tree Farm southwest of Mt. Rainier. It marked a major shift and felt “like a knife in the back” to sportsmen who had long enjoyed free access to Weyerhaeuser lands.
While the company initially said it was necessary to combat dumping and other damage, the idea was soon taken up by other major firms and now includes leases, amounting to a reduction in hunter numbers and effort on the most productive areas — though also slightly increasing success rates there too.
GAINING — AND DEFENDING — PUBLIC GROUND
On the flip side, WDFW added significant land to its portfolio, most notably acquiring what became the 33.45-square-mile Big Bend, 16.35-square-mile 4-O Ranch and 16.11-square-mile (so far) Simcoe Mountains Wildlife Areas for fish and wildlife habitat, and fishing, hunting and other recreational activities.
It was also a decade that required a vigorous defending of public lands as outside agitators, Northwest ones in the apparent form of Washington Rep. Matt Shea and other conservative interests attempted to wrestle them away, most notably at Malheur National Wildlife Refuge.
However, environmentalists were blamed for the near-loss of Oregon’s 82,500-acre Elliott State Forest near Coos Bay after their lawsuits prevented it from meeting its constitutional duty to provide funding for schools through log sales. A local timber company and tribe were set to pluck it off the market for $221 million before a groundswell of hunters, anglers and others spurred lawmakers to come up with a plan that kept it public and productive for fish, wildlife and local economies.
WDFW takes a lot of punches, rightfully so in some regards, but in the early years of this decade it was at risk of being literally zeroed out and consolidated with DNR and State Parks following the recession, which also sharply cut General Fund contributions to the department and which 10 years later still haven’t been restored, making it lean more heavily on a depleting base of sportsmen. The “Ecosystem Management and Recreation Agency” didn’t come to pass, but a fee increase in 2011 did, though bids to hike the cost of licenses in 2017 and 2019 failed, leaving WDFW’s budget well out of whack.
It is quite possible that the single most popular thing that WDFW did this entire decade might have been allowing residents to salvage roadkilled deer and elk starting in mid-2016. Pushed by a Fish and Wildlife Commissioner-hunter who lives near one of the most dangerous highways in the state for mule deer, US 97 in Okanogan County, Washington residents immediately started collecting downed does and organized Facebook pages to efficiently alert others to the bounty of bucks and bulls on the byways.
It took ODFW a little longer to warm to the idea but with prodding from the legislature, salvaging began this past January. But ODFW also embraced The New, rolling out mobile apps for buying licenses as well as tagging fish and game, even with no cell reception, while WDFW’s Fish Washington app aims to guide anglers to the waters and their regulations.
SPORTMEN’S GROUPS GETTING IT DONE
Northwest fishing and hunting organizations lent their muscle to conservation efforts across the decade, supporting efforts of the DFWs to make the region a better place for fish and wildlife and recreational activities. The groups and their accomplishments are too many to list — my apologies for forgetting clubs — but the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation was solidly behind many WDFW land acquisitions while the Wenatchee Sportsmen’s Club fought for wapiti and mule deer habitat targeted to become high-elevation cherry orchards and the Okanogan chapter of the Mule Deer Foundation and Oregon Hunters Association, among others, are working on safer passage for deer on deadly Highway 97. The Northwest Sportfishing Industry Association kicked butt in the halls of power while the Coastal Conservation Association’s King of the Reach fall Chinook broodstock collection work on the free-flowing Columbia at Hanford has set records the past two Octobers. And Puget Sound Anglers has been rightfully lauded for their work with NOAA on rockfish in the inland sea that helped head off potentially sweeping closures. My hat is off to you all, keep up your great and vital work.
IN MEMORIAM: MAY WE HAVE A MOMENT OF SILENCE FOR …
Lake Washington sockeye: “Now just about everything that can go wrong is going wrong.” So lamented an advocate of this one-time fishery last year — and then things got worse.
Between smolt predation in the lake, poor ocean conditions, warm waters weakening returning adults, prespawn mortality and SPU, it’s no wonder that red salmon runs back to Seattle’s freshwater sea crashed to their lowest ever levels in 2019, with just 17,408 tallied at the Ballard Locks, 3,039 back to the Cedar River, ~ 1,700 to the hatchery and 2.57 million eggs collected, all new low marks. Is all hope finally lost?
Cowlitz River smelt: OK, the candle has not completely gone out on these oily fish as smelt dipping did see a brief resurgence at mid-decade, thanks to test fisheries to monitor the ESA-listed run, but there haven’t been any opportunities due to low returns the past two years and the last opener in 2017 saw “just a bunch of people paddling the river with nets,” a Longview local told a newspaper reporter.
Northwest hook-and-bullet reporters: Another instance of where they’re not quite all dead or retired yet, but the decade saw the continued bleeding of the brain trust of outdoor reporters as big newspapers shed their weekly columns or those who’d done the job for ages decided to “hang up their hoochie,” as one longtime pen stated. But all is not lost as papers like The Columbian, The Spokesman-Review and others maintain the post, while radio shows, podcasts and a weekly YouTube/Facebook broadcast are taking up the slack.
Northeast Washington/North Idaho mountain caribou: As wolves, cougars and other predators followed moose and deer into the logged-over heights, they discovered a completely clueless species and found them to be tasty. Indeed, it was a bad decade to be a South Selkirk mountain caribou, whose numbers slipped from 49 animals in 2009 to just three roaming this high, remote corner of the Lower 48 in fall 2018. The trio were captured and put with British Columbia herds — and at last check only one remains alive.
Santa is not *@#$%@$ happy.
THE DECADE TO COME?
What will the next 10 years bring for Northwest fish and wildlife, angling and hunting? Damn good question.
I said higher up on the page that salmon and steelhead populations are cyclical and I believe we will see a bounce back. And I think as more and more habitat improvements are made, rearing and spawning capacity will increase in the rivers.
At the same time, I foresee continued tightening of fisheries and plenty of challenges with fish and wildlife management as our own numbers falter. The DFWs will continue looking for a broader support base, but must fold the “newcomers” in in a way that doesn’t leave us out in the cold, while at the same time we need to pull up our big girl and boy pants and welcome them to the sled team and help get everyone pulling in the same direction.