Talkin’ Opening Day Trout With WDFW Manager Steve Caromile
By MD Johnson
(Editor’s note: The following interview occurred in March and appears in the April 2023 issue of Northwest Sportsman.)
Imagine, if you would, Christmas and Halloween and Easter and, oh, what the heck, your birthday all rolled into one. What do you have? Washington’s annual lowland lake opener, this year on April 22.
And what’s this mean? Why, it means trout. Lots and lots and lots of trout. Adults. Kids. Buckets. SpongeBob fish poles. Snoopy bobbers. Cook-outs. Captain America PowerBait. Derbies. Folks dressed like unicorns – well, maybe that last one is a stretch, but not too much.
No matter how you look at it, the lowland trout opener is, by proverbial nutshell, a good time had by all just waiting to happen. And no one individual knows this better than the state Department of Fish and Wildlife’s trout frontman, Steve Caromile. He’s a busy guy, Caromile is, especially as we’re sitting within a couple weeks of the aforementioned fourth-Saturday-in-April opener; however, Northwest Sportsman was able to pin him down for a few minutes last month, and get the lowdown on the upcoming lowland lake opener.
Northwest Sportsman First rattle out of the box; sir, who are you?
Steve Caromile I’m Steve Caromile, and I’m the Inland Fish Program manager for the WDFW. My wife and I moved out here to Washington in 1995, and that’s when I started with the agency, so I’m on my 28th year.
NWS So, what does the Inland Fish Program manager do, and have you always been in that role?
SC Let me answer the second part first, and say “no,” I haven’t always been in this position. I moved into this position in 2018, and full-time since 2019. When I first came into the agency, I was a salmon modeler.
Author’s note: My apologies, Steve, but when you first said this, all I could see was a guy in a salmon suit trotting down the catwalk during Fashion Week. Ugh, I’m sorry, but I digress.
I was a computer programmer, and did a whole bunch of our salmon season modeling work. I spent a couple years doing that, and then I started with our Warmwater Enhancement Program. I was a field biologist for 20-some years doing research on our bass and walleye populations. So for most of my career, I’ve been in our inland program, which is truthfully quite substantial (in its scope).
NWS I thought when I accepted this assignment that the Inland Fish Program manager was simply the Trout Guy, but you wear a lot of different hats, yes?
SC The Warmwater Program is underneath me, and so I definitely have a lot of different hats I throw on, depending on the time of day, let’s say.
NWS What does the lowland trout opener mean to Washington anglers?
SC Ohhhhhhh! Let me throw some numbers at you, and that should help paint the picture. Trout fishing in Washington is one of our biggest license sales. You might think it’s salmon, but trout are what the majority of people (in Washington) do. We plant about 17 million trout and kokanee each year. That’s a lot of fish. I come from Connecticut, and we did maybe 200,000.
Author’s note: My math skills, though rusty, puts that number closer to 83,000 anglers – needless to say, a lot of people!
So now you’re talking on just one day – opening day – of having close to 100,000 people fishing just for trout. So it’s one of the biggest openers the agency has for resource use. It’s huge!
NWS So what you’re telling me, Steve, is that it ranks right up there with Christmas? Do some folks get that giggly about the opener?
SC Internally, when we’re talking about this, we don’t call it opening day. We call it “Fishy Christmas.” We had something like this in Connecticut; being younger and just really looking forward to it every year. Going out and having a great time with your family and friends, even in high school. And it’s still like that. You go out there to one of these lakes on opening day, and people are just excited. They’re having a great time. It’s like that – it’s like Christmas. People go out a couple weeks ahead of time. They’re buying new fishing gear. They’re buying new lures. Getting the boat cleaned up. For a lot of people, it’s exactly like that.
NWS How cool is it that April 22nd coincides with Earth Day?
SC That is cool! Having people out there doing things that are “environmental” and “environmentally responsible” – getting people in tune with conservation all on the same day? That’s very cool.
NWS WDFW stocked 2.18 million catchable trout (10-inch fish) in 2022. How is 2023 going to stack up against that? Numbers about the same?
SC I think the numbers are going to be fairly similar. In general, our overall production numbers don’t change much from year to year. There are only so many fish our hatcheries can produce, and they produce right up to that number. So 2.18 million catchables in ’22 for opening day? I’m not going to disagree with that at all. Last year, we did about 3.5 million catchables, but that’s spread out over the year. So go out for the opener, but if you’re not catching fish on the opener, don’t worry. We’re still stocking fish after that.
NWS Do stocked trout – “planter trout” – deserve the “icky” reputation on the table so many folks seem to have given them?
SC That’s interesting. The taste of fish is often influenced by a couple of things. One is the water they’re living in, and two is the temperature of that water, and three is what they’re eating. I don’t think they have an “icky” taste to them. I think they have a distinctive taste to them that most trout, to me, taste like. I know what trout taste like. What yellow perch taste like. What bass taste like. All three taste different to me. So I don’t think (stocked trout) deserve the icky reputation.
I think some folks think they’re fed Purina fish chow, and that’s not really the case. They’re fed a high-quality fish meal product, and they get plenty of exercise. They’re not that lumpy thing some people think they might be. I believe we produce a good product in our hatcheries.
NWS Favorite trout recipe?
SC It’s kind of funny, but I don’t often go trout fishing. I do a lot of bass fishing, and around here, I’ll fish for tiger muskie. I do some sea-run cutthroat trout fishing, which (of course) you can’t harvest. But I’m a simple person when it comes to cooking fish. If it’s on the grill, it’s lemon and butter and a little garlic. And I’ll do the same thing if it’s in a pan. Put it in the oven with a little white wine. But, once again, really simple.
NWS Hypothetical scenario, Steve. I’m new to the trout opener. My wife and I have two children, ages 6 and 8. Neither of the little ones have fished before, and I’ve only gone a few times. What should I expect on the opener? If I wear a propeller beanie, will I fit in?
SC [Laughs] Sure! I wear a propeller beanie every now and then.
One of the best things to help prepare yourself for angling – if you look on the agency website, we have a series of “how to” videos on there. These will tell you what gear to have. What to fish with. Some of the really easy techniques of how to go out there and what to do. As far as what kind of gear – rod and reel and bait; how to set up, and some basic knots – all of that is (in the form of) YouTube videos on the WDFW website. So if you don’t have a lot of experience, spend some time watching these. And remember with kids – I don’t have kids, but I was one once – the biggest thing is keeping their attention. Making sure they’re having fun. It’s wet here. And windy. And cold. Make sure they’re comfortable, and most of all, make sure they’re having fun ’cause we want them coming back and doing this again.
NWS Steve, a couple “best bets” per region for the opener? Good access. Water getting fish for the opener. Your thoughts?
SC Access is always the thing, so anything I give you here is going to have one of our “access areas” on it. Some lakes have better shoreline access than others, but these all perform well on a yearly basis.
Region 1, EASTERN
Cedar Lake (Stevens County): Always performs well, as does Rocky Lake. West Medical: Another great lake people go to on the opener. There’s a lot for shore access there; same with Fishtrap Lake, also in Spokane County. That’s another great lake.
Region 2, NORTHCENTRAL
Warden Lake (Adams County): Always a good one. Blue and Park Lakes: Good access right along Highway 17, plus Sun Lakes State Park access. Deep Lake, also in Grant County, is another one.
Region 3, SOUTHCENTRAL
Author’s note: Caromile states that Region 3 “is a tough one” to call, as there’s neither any opening-day waters, nor many lakes, “but there are some.” And those year-round lakes get some “fishy assistance” from WDFW in the form of lots of stockers, to include: Columbia Park Pond (Benton County): Open only for anglers 15 and under, seniors and anglers with a disability who possess a designated harvester companion card. Fiorito Lake North (Kittitas County): A good one, Caromile says, to try on the opener. Tim’s Pond, Rotary Lake, and all six of the I-82 Ponds (Yakima County): “We put fish in all of those; they’re good ones,” he adds.
Region 4, NORTH SOUND
Lake Geneva and Walker Lake (King County): Pretty high catch rates, while McMurray Lake in Skagit County has really good catch rates. A lot of those King County lakes get stocked a little heavier because of population size.
Region 5, SOUTHWEST
Rowland Lake: Right on Highway 14 and one of the lakes I like best. Rowland, to me, is very nice. Plenty of shoreline access, or you could get a small car-topper boat in there. Good catch rates there, along with Spearfish Lake in that same area (of southern Klickitat County).
Region 6, COASTAL
Failor Lake (Grays Harbor County) and Lake Bowers: These both have really high catch rates, and both have pretty decent access. Lake Limerick (Mason County): It’s a small lake and not a lot of people go to it. There’s a boat launch on it, and it’s another good one to go to. It’s right along Highway 3. Ohop and Silver Lakes (Pierce County): A couple of my personal favorites.
NWS So, what’s the most interesting thing or individual you’ve encountered on a trout opener?
SC Ohhhhhhhh, I’m not really sure I want to answer that! Opening day is really an interesting day. You see all kinds of things out there on the water. And it’s just people out there having fun. It would be people fishing from – well, it’s like a float tube, but it’s an animal-shaped one. Like the kids use. Once again, it’s just people out there living life and they’re having fun.