UPDATED 5:50 P.M., THURSDAY, JUNE 5, 2023, WITH NEW INFORMATION IN THE FIRST FIVE ITALICIZED PARAGRAPHS
Two trusted Northwest Sportsman sources this afternoon indicate that WDFW will “reconsider” permanently closing the Quillayute and Hoh Rivers in April to steelheading via annual salmon rules changes.
A screenshot from this afternoon’s public hearing on the 2023-24 seasons coming out of the North of Falcon season-setting process shows that “April fishery closures” on North Olympic Peninsula Rivers are one of four sets “of proposals they are considering to not adopt given the early public written comment and feedback they’ve received,” according to one source.
More than half a dozen individuals testified in opposition during the hearing.
It wasn’t clear where the proposal goes from here. WDFW states that it intends to adopt final rules for the new fishing pamphlet by Wednesday, June 14. Agency Director Kelly Susewind is ultimately responsible for the decision.
The surprise proposal drew a lot of pushback from stakeholders, with 40-plus registered as opposed, as the following story filed this morning indicates:
WDFW’s use of the North of Falcon salmon-season-setting process to quietly and permanently close a pair of Forks-area wild steelhead systems to fishing in April is generating a lot of pushback as public comment on the matter wraps up later today.
Steelheaders say they were “excluded” from the process, allege the state has been “evasive and deceptive” about it, leading to a loss of faith in the agency, argue the move “lacks scientific evidence that it will achieve any conservation goals,” say it will impact the local economy, and are calling on WDFW to withdraw the proposals
“There was absolutely zero discussion regarding this with local stakeholders in the sports fishing sector. This has eroded our trust of the Department representing our interests to almost zero in light of all the developments of recent years,” states Bob Ball, a longtime Forks-area fishing guide and president of the Olympic Peninsula Guide Association.
His is among 40-plus comments opposing the move and posted to a WDFW input portal in recent days.
“The missed opportunity of an April fishery will cost my Forks-based small business over $10k and that number can be multiplied many, many times for direct impact to our local guides,” adds Ball, who operates the Piscatorial Pursuits forum where the issue is also a topic of discussion.
Comments one apparent out-of-state steelheader, “I’m not a game biologist but my husband and I have enjoyed coming many times from Texas to fish the Hoh. Please try to make any adjustments you need without the ‘permanent’ label. Thank you.”
Essentially, buried deep in the minutiae of the proposed 2023-24 salmon regulations are new rules that would close fishing in April on the Quillayute and Hoh systems in April, a popular time to get after the Olympic Peninsula’s healthiest wild steelhead runs.
Last month, WDFW Fish Program Director Kelly Cunningham said it is being done “based on agreement with comanagers during the North of Falcon process associated with salmon fisheries.”
Steelheaders, guides, guide associations and conservation groups – stakeholders who should have been advised such a momentous change was in the works – were caught completely flat-footed.
Kyle Adicks, WDFW’s intergovernmental salmon manager, acknowledged that in May, saying, “You’re right, we never brought it up in a meeting, and that’s an oversight on our part.”
That “feels like a breach of trust,” states angler Brian McLachlan in comments emailed to nof2023-recreational@PublicInput.com, another way WDFW is taking comment.
“Moreover, to-date the agency has failed to provide any meaningful rationale or analysis that adequately explains why permanently closing steelhead seasons in April on the Hoh and Quillayute systems may be biologically warranted or otherwise necessary,” adds McLachlan, who has been particularly outspoken about the move. “I and others are thus left to speculate as to WDFW’s justification, and accordingly our ability to provide informed comments here is substantially impaired. Should we focus our comments on potential impacts to steelhead? Impacts to salmon? Tribal co-management concerns? Regulation clarity and/or consistency? Use of emergency regulations? Without being adequately informed as to the agency’s reasoning for the proposed closures, I would be just shooting in the dark with substantive comments.”
WDFW’s Cunningham said the 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,” which Adicks essentially reiterated when asked about the Quillayute system.
From a fishing gear perspective, it’s hard to see how closing a steelhead fishery that WDFW has restricted to baitless and barbless single-hooked offerings – and no boats on the Hoh and elsewhere, reducing catch by an estimated 50 percent – would have much if any impact on Chinook that largely return later in spring anyway. And the 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.
Twolocal tribes also have spring fisheries targeting Chinook.
Cunningham said, “In areas where salmon and steelhead fisheries overlap, salmon seasons may be modified during North of Falcon to protect steelhead, or vice versa.”
He also said the rivers could still be opened for steelhead fishing next April via an emergency rule change if local comanagers agree with it.
But right now, WDFW is preparing to permanently close the month.
Then, after all is said and done, WDFW Director Kelly Susewind will sign off on the fishing rules and they will appear in the 2023-24 pamphlet, which takes effect July 1.
But anglers are hoping the director vetos the April closures.
“I urge WDFW to withdraw the current proposals to close recreational steelhead fishing in April on the Hoh and Quillayute systems via permanent regulations and instead if necessary take this issue up during the usual steelhead season-setting public process in the fall. There is plenty of time before April 2024 to address this issue in the right way, rather than through this materially flawed process,” states McLachlan.