Buried deep in the minutiae of the pending 2023-24 Washington fishing regs are rule changes that Forks-area steelheaders and salmon anglers may want to make their thoughts known about in the coming two weeks.
WDFW is preparing to bar angling for wild winter-runs on the Quillayute and Hoh systems in April, a popular time to get after the Olympic Peninsula’s healthiest stocks, as well as fishing for hatchery spring Chinook on the former during the same timeframe.
True, recent years have seen veryrestrictedsteelhead seasons on the entire coast due to low abundances, but anglers stand to lose four-plus weeks of potential fishing time on the Quillayute, Dickey, Bogachiel, Sol Duc and Calawah, and two-plus weeks on the Hoh, if the state agency writes the change into the permanent regulations.
Fishermen, guides, guide associations and conservation groups have all been caught completely flat-footed by the steelhead news in particular.
“We were not advised until this week that they were pushing for a permanent rule change closing April fisheries, nor was anyone I have talked with,” said Ravae O’Leary of the Olympic Peninsula Guides Association in Forks.
A boiler-plate WDFW press release out this morning about a chance to comment on the pending regs makes no effort to indicate that such a big change is in the works, leaving it to anglers and others to go through 170 pages worth of tweaks to the Washington Administrative Code governing fishing rules.
It’s mind-boggling that something as potentially impactful to the steelheading community and local businesses as an April closure wouldn’t have been better advertised by WDFW, but here we are.
“You’re right, we never brought it up in a meeting, and that’s an oversight on our part,” acknowledged Kyle Adicks, WDFW’s intergovernmental salmon manager, yesterday afternoon.
Oversight or on purpose, some will undoubtedly wonder.
Who is to say, but right now there are more questions than answers about what’s going on and why.
Asked to explain why WDFW is moving the closure of steelhead season from the end of April to the end of March on the two West End systems, agency Fish Program Director Kelly Cunningham said it was based off of an agreement with tribal comanagers during the recently concluded North of Falcon salmon-season-setting negotiations.
“In the case of the Hoh, the salmon closure in April protects against incidental encounters with steelhead and would also reduce impacts on Hoh spring/summer Chinook during the early part of the return, conserving some early impacts and potentially benefitting opportunity when it opens in May,” Cunningham stated by email.
Adicks essentially reiterated those points in a phone call later in the day when asked about the Quillayute system.
However, from a fishing gear perspective, it’s hard to see how closing an April steelhead fishery that WDFW has restricted to baitless and barbless single-hooked offerings would have much if any impact on Chinook that largely return later in spring anyway.
What’s more, WDFW’s proposed 2023-24 regulations would still allow bait for hatchery springers in the Quillayute and Sol Duc beginning May 1, a salmon-directed fishery that suggests that impacts and encounters with Chinook maybe aren’t that constraining of a factor after all.
(Of note, the Quileute Tribe netted the Quillayute River for salmon and steelhead last month, is doing so this month, will continue to do so through spring into summer and presumably will do so again next April, barring poor 2024 run forecasts. The Hoh Tribe began netting the Hoh River May 1 for Chinook and presumably will do so again next spring with a good preseason prediction.)
Puzzlingly, WDFW’s pending regs retain a 15-day April steelhead fishery on the upper Quinault River, which also has a spring-summer run of Chinook. That suggests the new rules are for some reason being narrowly focused on Forks-area rivers, which boast the strongest wild winter steelhead stocks on the peninsula – strong enough to relax boat-fishing bans on portions of the Duc, Calawah, Bogey and Quilly this past season. But why?
Asked if the new rules are in response to the National Marine Fisheries Service’s finding earlier this year that listing Olympic Peninsula steelhead under the Endangered Species Act may be warranted – i.e., WDFW is trying to show the feds it is further protecting the fish – Cunningham did not directly answer the question and instead referred to the comanager salmon fishing agreement.
Where WDFW has yet to officially advise OPGA or others about the specific pending steelhead changes, Cunningham and Adicks say the agency did tell the guide association that it wanted to open the 2023 spring Chinook fishery on the Quillayute system on May 1.
A March 22 email from the state district fisheries biologist and forwarded by the association’s O’Leary confirms that.
The email makes no mention of steelhead in spring 2024, however. WDFW also backtracked on statements that it had brought it up at North of Falcon after meeting recordings didn’t turn up any mentions.
How WDFW can use setting salmon seasons to squelch part of a steelhead fishery is a question many will have.
“In areas where salmon and steelhead fisheries overlap, salmon seasons may be modified during North of Falcon to protect steelhead, or vice versa,” explained Cunningham.
He indicated that while moving the 2024 steelhead closure from April 30 to March 31 will go into the permanent regs, it can also be relaxed.
“If the outcome of steelhead fisheries planning this fall leads to sport fisheries in April, the fisheries could be opened via emergency regulation following agreements with comanagers,” Cunningham said.
Still, the pending rules would permanently close April. As Washington anglers know all too familiarly, once they lose something it’s hard to get it back.
It’s all a bit of a dog-and-pony show at this last stage in the process, but public comment on the Quillayute and Hoh April steelhead and salmon rules, as well as other final 2023-24 regulations, is open now.
There will also be a virtual hearing Thursday, June 8, at 2 p.m. Attendees are required to register in advance.