There was some relief but a lot of bitter disappointment among Washington Coast anglers at WDFW’s proposed winter steelhead and late-timed coho fisheries rolled out at a town hall tonight.
Winter fishing season would open on the North and South Coasts for wild and hatchery steelhead December 1 with the now-usual restrictions and in the middle there may be a two-plus-week fishery targeting silvers in portions of the Grays Harbor system, but hopes for opening two Chehalis tribs for late winter-runs were smashed.
WDFW Director Kelly Susewind will now make a final decision on the proposals in the coming day or so.
The slate includes December 1-16 fisheries “focused primarily on salmon” on portions of the lower Chehalis, Satsop and Humptulips Rivers; and hatchery and wild steelhead fisheries December 1-March 31 on Willapa Bay rivers and the Hoh under the same rules as 2021-22, with boat fishing expanded on the Quillayute system in the Forks area.
However, WDFW says it doesn’t yet have signed agreements for the Quinault and Queets Rivers due to disagreements with the Quinault Indian Nation’s planned netting and/or tight forecasted escapements of wild steelhead.
“And with the current proposals we’ve seen from the tribe, there just isn’t a place for a responsible state fishery,” explained James Losee, WDFW Region 6 fishery manager.
WDFW says that the tribe is modeling 56.2 days of netting on the Quinault and 36 days on the Queets.
That said, Losee didn’t rule out coming to an agreement with the tribe and being able to open water at a later date. The Quinault above the lake would have the better odds than the Queets, where there are the fewest available impacts – essentially, wild steelhead catch-and-release mortalities.
Anglers’ hopes for opening the Skookumchuck and Wynoochee for late hatchery steelhead are done after the Quinaults communicated “extremely clearly” an intention to protect wild returns as much as possible in the Chehalis Basin, according to Losee.
“There’s nothing to read between the lines: The Chehalis is expected to close after December 16,” he added.
It left angler Rob Larson “kinda speechless” after he and other state fishermen had pushed hard to open the Skook and ‘Nooch to access abundant harvestable hatchery steelhead and WDFW put time and effort into figuring out how to make it work.
Last season, nearly 3,800 Skookumchuck steelies ended up being surplussed to food banks and local lakes instead of be fished for in the tiny tributary or below its mouth.
Another angler as well as Fish Hunt Northwest host Duane Inglin stated that WDFW had essentially just guaranteed its paucity of steelhead catch data in the Chehalis would continue for another year.
“Why are we putting all these hatchery fish in if we can’t fish for them?” Inglin asked, adding that not being able to try and catch them puts production at risk from anti-hatchery groups.
In response, WDFW Fish Program Director Kelly Cunningham pointed to an agency budget request of lawmakers for $5.9 million over the next two years to increase coastal fishery monitoring.
Losee termed the disappointment “a reminder we’re in this with tribal comanagers” and pointed to last year’s wild steelhead return to the Chehalis that was 3,000 fish below escapement goals, a chronic problem in the basin in recent years.
The town hall lasted an hour and a half – 30 minutes longer than originally scheduled thanks to angler questions and comments – and at the end Cunningham said look for the season’s regulations to come out in the coming days.
“I know there are some folks who are kinda happy, kinda middle of the road and some are disappointed, and we are too,” he said in thanking fishermen for participating in the months-long process.