Local sportfishing leaders are asking fellow anglers to avoid encounters with “critically low numbers” of wild winter steelhead “at all costs” when the Skykomish River opens tomorrow.
Mark Spada of the Snohomish Sportsmen’s Club expects a big crowd on the Seattle-area river Saturday for the start of the hatchery summer steelhead and hatchery Chinook season, and he’s also raising awareness that late winter-run adults and smolts are still in the system.
“We almost lost this fishery, and compliance/self-policing is mandatory to retain it,” he said this morning.
To that end, laminated signs advising anglers about handling natives were posted at popular accesses along the Sky earlier this week.
“We placed signs at the Sultan, Lewis and Ben Howard Ramps, as well as some smaller signage at a few public access spots in between,” says Matthew Kennedy, a mason who runs the Facebook group Snohomish /skykomish River anglers.
The signage reminds anglers that it’s illegal to lift wild steelhead out of the water in Washington; asks them not to net their fish or to use a rubber or knotless net if necessary; use a dehooker to remove hooks from the mouth or jaw area, cut the line for swallowed hooks; and to keep your grubby fingers out of the eyes and gills of the fish.
Kennedy says he and Spada are working with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife and Snohomish County Public Utility District “to educate anglers on the diminishing wild steelhead populations and hoping to educate those who are unaware of the damage they may be causing to ensure future populations and protection from possible restrictions on our seasons.”
Where once there was enough fish to hold a coveted March-April native catch-and-release season on the Skykomish, overall Snohomish River basin returns have dropped from 4,132 as recently as 1998 to 1,188 in 2014 to 372 in 2018.
Last year saw just 178 back to the Sky and 55 to the Sultan.
The Sultan is where PUD operates a dam and has been working to improve conditions for wild steelhead, which return relatively later to the cold trib of the Skykomish.
The utility believes that the state’s summer steelhead and Chinook fishery is impacting the survival of winter-runs, both prespawn adults and postspawn kelts, as well as juvenile fish.
PUD has been trying to get WDFW to delay the start of the summer season on the Sky, as well as restrict bait, both of which would reduce the effectiveness of steelhead and salmon fishing below the mouth of the Wallace, which the hatchery Chinook return to.
WDFW has argued that angling impacts are well below the federal maximum 4.2 percent impact limit on Endangered Species Act-listed steelhead – “more like 1.6 percent, so the impacts on steelhead are negligible,” says state fishery manager Edward Eleazer says.
He points to 2015’s Blob, which dewatered tributaries and likely led to too-low returns to hold a Skagit-Sauk catch-and-release fishery for wild steelhead this spring, as well as harbor seals and habitat degradation.
Still, the agency and angling advocates are teaming up ahead of the long Memorial Day Weekend.
“Please help spread the word to all of the anglers heading to the Skykomish opener that encounters with wild winter runs must be avoided at all costs,” Spada urged in a message to local tackle stores, media outlets and guides.
As for the fishing, with the Sky dropping back down to near-typical flows for this time of year, the upper 6,000-cubic-foot-per-second range, Spada expects that fish might be scattered and that while effort will be high, catches will likely be better in the coming weeks.
Dated data shows peak summer Chinook and steelhead fishing around June 11, but fish are already in.
“I’m very optimistic,” says Kennedy. “I have a feeling we will see a decent opening and a decent season. After the restrictions with Covid-19 and closures, it should put more fish to the gravel that would have otherwise been caught in Puget Sound. I was out for a drift/scout yesterday morning and saw a handful of Chinook rolling throughout the system. I am excited and looking forward to some home-water fishing.”
Angling was closed across Washington from late March through May 4, including for hatchery Chinook in the marine areas off the mouth of the Snohomish.
With coronavirus concerns continuing, WDFW is asking anglers to fish close fish close to home, go only with members of their own household, maintain 6 feet of distance from others in popular areas, and to bring their own TP and hand sanitizer as not all bathroom facilities may be available.