Most of this post has been a long time coming and my good friend Joe Willauer posted on his blog about steelhead popularity, a great read and a fantastic person to follow. This prompted me to speak up with OLD MAN experiences even though I am but 51, I hope that’s not old.
Some of this post will be a little of memory lane, for those of us that were steelhead fishing in the 70-80′s, younger generations may not believe it.. Please bare with the history lesson, I’ll get to the point eventually..
Fishing pressure as we see it now is NOT what it used to be, it used to be much more. In the 7o’s the rivers were lined with hip boot wearing egg tossing old men and there boys. It was commonly a very sociable occasion, everyone talking on the river bank and enjoying company in the outdoors. I remember many days on the Puyallup or Green river hanging out with grandpa and his fishing friends, often around a campfire on the beach. One fond memory at Antones Bar on the Puyallup River: About fifteen bank anglers were at upper Antones, ( lower bar had at least 30) only five or so guys were fishing and rest of us were at the fire, telling lies of course, the angler at the tail out hooks a fish, the next guy up hooks a fish and by the time a third was hooked up we all had ran out to the river bank casting for our catch, no cussing , no evil eye, no attitude just sociable angling. At the time I thought that was the lesson in how steelhead move, but it was a lesson in how it did not matter weather you were first or last it only mattered that you were there when it happened.
Back then gear guys would post up just as now, but only because of so many people, not because of being stubborn or un-respectful to the others that were just fishing through. A guy moving through would simply play through with communication and respect. Antones Bar was near the junction of the White river and named after the restaurant adjacent to the river. It also was a hatchery plant site, as well as 121st, McMillian bridge, and others up and down river. This is were the bulk of the fishing pressure congregated, boats and bank anglers spread out in between. On any given week end over 200 hundred anglers would be fishing steelhead between three hatchery plant bars and drifters in eight miles of river, not one gravel bar would be empty. The limit was three steelhead and no difference between hatchery or wild, on good days everyone limited other days it was the 10% factor.
In comparison some of today’s anglers become visibly distraught when there are thirty boats and maybe ten bankies in the bottom twelve miles of the Hoh river, that’s a busy day that happens maybe 2 or 3 week ends in the season. From these most boats would expect to fish only half the water as bank anglers now expect a full run when they occupy it standing there alone no matter how long it is to the tail out, well most spey anglers do. The same boat respecting the bank angler would receive warm regards from only half the people and the evil eye or total verbal disdain from even being there from the rest (the angry spey dude). Not at all the sociable event from years past, even though we now have social media, reality TV and the outdoor channel. Purely a result in popularity of English rules as a means to hold public water, private (more on this concept and conservation later) . This conflict and increased pressure has become the norm since the closure of the Skagit and the other Puget Sound streams for winter steelhead. I myself totally understand desire a buffer zone free from the low hole approach and have enforced it myself for my guys when needed, but very seldom from intentional low holing. Its a complete double standard, when I am swinging a run I have had guys walk two hundred yards down to me and ask about stepping in up at the top out of courtesy, which is totally un needed at that distance. That never happens when I am in my boat.
Now that I either have you pissed off or understanding the division of angler attitude, please read on.
In the ’80′s the hardcore list of anglers wanted more wild fish to catch, we were experiencing less wild steelhead for a few consecutive years, popularity was high and kill rate along with it. Some of us touted the virtues of catch and release before it happened. The popularity of the subject had been rejected for three years straight on the Puget Sound streams were it was first suggested. WDFW introduced the idea of public meetings on the subject of rules. They were held in Chehalis of all places and this subject was “Closing the Skagit and many others for wild steelhead season”. We packed in, standing room only, into a 30×30 room in Chehalis Wa to discuss the rule changes. We were there about steelhead and how to keep the season open by promoting C&R. Kill fishermen and the WDFW wanted to close the season for a few years and let it rebound, of course the tribe would have kept fishing. That sounded as if it was going to happen, rejection of catch and release, until one speaker. A guide named John Farrar stepped up to the rickety old table and SLAMMED a huge book down, it landed with a boom like a cannon shot. That got everyone’s attention, he repeated what we all had been saying at the meeting, but now people were listening. He adamantly preached that C&R will work and that sport fishermen are not killing the run and any guide or angler still killing them should step up and see the writing on the wall. Quote: ” This bull shit of closing a river instead of killing fish is pure stupidity”, “stopping sport fishing will be the death of wild steelhead”. Without steelhead fishing the steelhead themselves would not survive, that was the outcome of the meeting. It was not until years later did I realize the complex truth of the statement and issue.
By the late 80′s brought on the reduction of steelhead fishing popularity due to C&R, it was this reduction the WDFW feared. Less people fished Puget Sound trib’s because they could not be killed. In fact nearly nobody fished and in a knee jerk reaction the WDFW started closing rivers in April , then March and so on. The budget was reduced for redd surveys and for wildlife officers, river closures resulted but were not implemented for the protection of steelhead. It was my hay days, I could fish the rivers in Puget Sound nearly all to myself pre-closure, the wild steelhead were still there and so was I, you could only imagine the success. Post-closure I voluntarily operated a C&R crew collecting steelhead data and scale samples for biologists that had lost there subjects due to closures.
As the rivers closed the pressure became insurmountable on the coastal waters were killing and open seasons was still allowed (1990).
The 90′s introduced the spey rod, a lot more fishing outside the box and the re building of steelhead popularity. Within ten years the spey rod grew in popularity by leaps and bounds. My first year fishing only a spey rod was a disaster I landed 10 steelhead fresh off a 300 fish winter the season before. I learned to overcome the handicap and soon respected it and understood “it just don’t work as well” that did not matter I enjoyed the difficulty. New anglers that have never even fished before started by just standing in the river flailing a spey rod. This coincides directly with the mass movement of Californians into Washington state. To be fair there were lots of moving into Washington State just a majority from California. As popularity grew some were discovering the lack of effectiveness in the swing game. Unknown to them the lore of the game through literature about the good ol days may have not been so good. You cant just pick up a swing rod go stand in the river and catch fish. But you can dream a lot while casting away, think of how things can be better, more fish, where one can go next with this big ass rod and catch a fish.
Ah Canada, yep BC to be exact, was the place to be and still is at times. In BC big ass aggressive steelhead bite the swung fly like no place else. It was easy to catch fish on the swing, well when the river was in shape and all the other stuff. While dreaming along, casting to the wonderful wild steelhead of our neighbors some asked “why not in Washington”. Enter the NEW era of regulation change by wild steelhead advocates. Never mind those fish are completely different from our winter run in nearly every way but one. I know what some of the NEW steelheaders ramble amongst themselves as they stand in the river making there 1000th cast w/o a fish, “if we can make this like Canada we would catch fish like in BC “or ” them damn gear boats are killing all the steelhead” or “those guides are crowding the fishery with there photographs” or one I like is ” that fish is out of the water he is dead now” I have herd them all. Or may favorite one I over herd while pissing in the woods while my guys were swinging the run one day, “if we beat the nymphing guides to this spot we can catch a fish for sure”. For all there good intentions too many rules are made out of resentment and jealousy and many will amount to zero steelhead saved. Popularity of steelhead fishing gone wrong. I once found myself saying “if we take this trail through the woods we will beat the guys coming from the bridge” (1984) and no I wont tell the creek. Popularity meets competitive anglers meets social media (anonymous tough guy behind the screen) and the popularity of notoriety (look at me dude) in the world of steelhead recovery. Sorry, not picking on spey guys as I am one of them, I am just more exposed to those ramblings in my line of work. I know intentions are to help the steelhead but its what happens in retrospect that is damaging. The only increased regulation on the sports fisherman should be total C&R state wide for wild steelhead and Outfitter regulations. Closing fishing is not an option!
As in anything popular there is always someone figuring how to make a profit from it, I do, I make a livelihood in what I love the most in life, fly fishing and all the cool stuff that comes with it. I also want to protect that livelihood and to protect that, I want to protect the wild steelhead and by protecting them, in turn fishing for them. I first wanted to preserve wild steelhead in the 80′s, thousands of volunteer hours and fishing club activity C&R became a reality. With the acceptance of C&R I directed my life toward being a fishing guide. Just as the steelhead needs the angler $ to help provide their survival, the fishing industry needs to promote the wild steelhead survival to maintain a livelihood. Organizers of some conservation groups have found a way to profit from the popularity of wild steelhead recovery, their true passions for wild steelhead should not be underestimated. The snowball of effect should be cautioned, ” be careful of what we ask for, if we get it we wont be fishing”. Money is what will save wild steelhead, whom you give that money to will determine weather we get to fish for them or not. I am amazed at how the finger is pointed at what is easy to repair at the time, presently its hatcheries, and rightfully so when it comes to the Chambers creek fish (thank you NFS). But pointing the finger of popular opinion on ALL hatcheries is like comparing WWII medicine to todays medical developments. In the past with the OTHER popular steelhead woes (logging, habitat, ocean harvest, gill nets, polution etc..) when we overcome the results of our own intentions and get back to fishing the steelhead have been there. Unlike prior conservation movements there seems to be a distraction from the pink elephant in the room. Meaning while some conservation groups forge divisions of the sport fishermen why has nobody found it possible that the aqua culture industry (net pens and fish farms) could been doing what it has done everywhere else in the world it exists? Is the Puget Sound somehow immune to the same horrific results that have plagued wild fish when fish farms are present? Maybe money can also buy the finger of opinion! Just saying.
So, to put this altogether the popularity of steelhead fishing is resulting in a competitive struggle amongst user groups fueled in part by those that claim to love the fish the most. In the early 70′s there was a turning point in Washington called the Bolt decision. History in the books will not reflect the reality of the situation, in a nutshell, conflicting user groups led to the results of the Bolt decision. What seemed like a fair result will accumulate in the destruction of sport fishing for steelhead. If we remain on the path we are and continue to give away our rights and responsibilities for the popularity of opinion. That path being complete fracturing of the sport fishing industry by regulation and popularity of hatchery hater opinion, with your donation money. The more we point the finger at the sports fisher the more we must not want to fish, because that will be the result, we will regulate ourselves right out of the picture. We must turn the popularity of steelhead fishing into the recovery of steelhead angling. We cant continue to point the finger at all hatcheries, they are not all the same. Each river each tributary has its own situation. We cannot continue to point the finger at our fellow sports men they are all in this together. We need to have some unity as a popular group or we will not change the direction of wild steelhead survival. Which will result in the loss of angling for them all together. In the past forty years we have tackled so many obstacles in the way of wild steelhead survival there are not that many left, aside from population reduction, and I don’t see that happening.
In hindsight the Bolt decision not only took away 50% but it also gave us 50% of the management rights, a big spot at the table so to speak, what we do with that responsibility will determine the future of steelhead fishing, nothing else matters. Utilize the lessons learned from the recovery efforts on the Columbia river
The future has never been brighter; riverine habitat is only getting better, the mighty Columbia is once again the king of Salmon and Steelhead production, an outdated hatchery system has been defeated and we have a huge following of dedicated steelhead fishermen what could be better?
Thanks for subscribing and enduring my RANT, Jeff Brazda..
After a lifetime of fishing the Methow River we have had a geological occurrence brought on by record wild fires and heavy rain in concession. The usual gin clear water on this stream has changed in the lower stretches (below Beaver Creek) for at least a season. I feel that from the “weight” if the material and its reach downriver it will blow out in a spring run-off or two. The effects to the fish will be seen in the years to come. In the four short days of fishing we have encountered most of the regular species, minus the whitefish? that are normally present and in addition BROWN TROUT. Yes brown trout reports by guests when fishing, credible reports too. I have yet to see one myself but will take a pic when I do.
In the meantime fishing the river has been a challenge with the silt loads on the insides that vary from five to twenty five foot wide and up to thigh deep. The river upstream from Beaver creek is in normal condition and one could expect regular Methow river fishing. this however has not stopped our operations and we are running full speed. The recent full moon has had steelhead on the move, they have been sporadic but catchable. The fact that we have seen quite a few Bull Trout in the river has given us hope that any resident fish kill may be minimal from the slides. The bug life has nearly disappeared in the lower zone, mainly pertaining to the summer stones that normally embrace the rocks at rivers edge. Upon turning a few rocks the underside life is minimal in selected areas.
So we had a COHO opening a full 6 days before the steelhead opening this season. Not sure of the intent with that by WDFW as the very few COHO I have seen on our swung flies have been very dark and undesirable. Maybe there are better fish elsewhere? let us know. Up till now its only been a impact on steelhead with the opening, as we all know that SALMON openings bring out a different angler, (serious head scratching)…
In the big picture of things this is a small blip on the screen of life for the Methow and her regular propensity for stability will return shortly. In one thought the ash may be fertilizing the river and its benefits are to come. As humans most of the geological changes we see are slight in comparison and nature has a way of repairing itself.
Thanks for subscribing Jeff Brazda
Well my first half of the fall season is ending its been a great run down here on the Klickitat even with July weather in October (aurgh)..The bite is very temperature and clarity dependent and variable in the direct sun. Thankfully the steelhead like to bite so well and provide great action when the kings are silent. The Chinook bite was great in the AM or cooler cloudy days and really turned on with some cloud cover and two foot vis. Most days double digit’s hook ups was the norm again with some kings un-land able. Swinging the Chinook was on and off but do-able when applied. Our favorite Chinook fly was simply a black string leach with pink or chartreuse tail, super easy and effective.
Now I am off to the Methow to see the fire damage and work on catching those Coho that are outnumbering anything else this season. The ability remains to be seen since we have not had a catchable number of Coho in the Methow in my lifetime! thinking a flash fly or bright colored Clouser jigged around in the holes on a VARSITY SPEY ROD will do nicely. ( shameless PLUG,, check).
Really looking forward to swinging a dry line on my favorite water in the world and hoping that the wild steelhead there like it too.. This was last seasons skater but I think it will do nicely again!
One of the finest things in fly fishing for trout is fishing a dry line nearly 100% of the time. As dry lines go there quite a few different names on the labels but nearly all made at either RIO, Scientific Anglers or Airflo. All three make a multitude of different tapers for different casting situations, fine tapers for small dries, nymphing tapers for bobber fishing, streamer tapers throwing meat, you get the idea.
BUT the reality of the dry line is that it needs to FLOAT in order to FISH it best, simply because line control is one of the biggest fish catching attributes to presentation. Mending ability is exactly what I am talking about. If it cant be mended well, then its NOT doing its job. I know there are boils that want to sink the boat but that’s not the situation we are speaking of.
Since the revolution of fly fishing hit mainstream about fifteen years ago the creation of “better” fly fishing lines has skyrocketed. New line manufactures have sprung up, new tapers, new coating materials and new fly line cores you name it they have advanced it.
I am not a guy who will sugar coat a review or opinion some will say, only to appease the fishing equipment manufactures that help support me as a fishing guide. As a perfectionist, ONLY WITH FLY FISHING, my biggest pet peeve is some new fangled technology that claims one thing and does another. I know the effectiveness of a good performing dry line so when a dry line does not float it wont last on my reels for even a week.
In the past I have used all manufactures of lines in Trout fishing and have found RIO LINES to be optimal for various reasons. But with my PEEVE of needing the best floating line I always venture off to experience others. This is what I found as to the effectiveness of the NEW era in floating lines..
Tested lines in 5 wt:
RIO GOLD: floated well out of the box, lasted that way for two days fishing then needed help. Mucilin is the ticket and it lasted a couple days between applications.
RIO GRAND: did not float so well out of the box and needed help right away.
RIO PERCEPTION: Floated well for a couple days and really reacted well to Mucilin.
RIO OUTBOUND SHORT: Will not float well enough for me to use as a dry fly or nymph line even with help, probably not its intended use.
Since I had older RIO lines I also used the new connect core and standard core lines. the connect core lines had some additional feel, I think there real usefulness will come when fishing larger fish and hook setting
SCIENTIFIC ANGLERS SHARKWAVE: A great improvement to the Sharkskin! floated well for 2 day’s with out help, having mixed results with the Mucilin, possibly an application issue. Great casting and handling line, although that subject not intended for review here.
AIRFLO SUPER DRI EXCEED: Floated ok for a few hours. Progressively worse and wont work with any of the floating aids I have.
AIRFLO SUPER DRI ALL AROUND PERFORMANCE: Same as Exceed, good thing they have some great Spey lines!
My unscientific study based on experience of what works best to help present the fly on location here on the Yakima River throwing dries of large caliber in big water. I did not form an opinion from just a couple days with these lines I used them extensively. Finding the RIO PERCEPTION was the best “floatable” fly line tried, followed by RIO Gold and SA Sharkwave. But all three needed floatant and there longevity is yet to been seen.
Side notes: The Sharkwave is the most improved line and all around a good product.
The Perception however floating best it casted different and performed (casted) better on faster action rods than slower. The RIO Gold is a standby and great all around trout line still today.
A product placed on the Market long before I was of age in the fly fishing world is still in use today and improving the performance of 80 dollar fly lines as well as old school braided core lines that are twenty plus years old that sold then for 9 bucks.
Mucilin in the green lable or red, I like the green but photographed the red because it still has a label on it. Get it and use it to experience what a FLOATING dry line can do for your presentation.
Thanks for subscribing, Jeff
Give us a call at 253-307-3210 I can help you set up some dates or just call Nate at 509-460-9519
Email Nate: Thenomadicangler@Gmail.com
About 15 plus years ago I met Gus Garcia in Ellensburg Washington. We were guiding together on a two boat trip down the Yakima River for trout. That day started off much like every other day of guiding, BS’n clients and bragging about the day before and really hoping the fickle Yakima would be better fishing than windsurfing.
Not more than 500 yards from the put in at Big Horn my stern guest hooks up and the bow dude ( totally appropriate name) turns out of the stand ups and right over backwards into the River. He pops up , thankfully entangled in MY fly line and rod, gasping in surprise. I net the fish, tell him to grab the gun whale and hold on.. About then GUS floats by chuckling “off to a good start eh”. We get the bloke in the boat and calmed down enough to start laughing about it, well WE being his brother in the stern and the two other boats with his family passengers in the area, he was not amused.
So started my friendship with Gus..
A couple days ago we made the same float with different results thankfully as it may been I that went swimming unwillingly. The fishing was not nearly as good but the company way better.
The early morning game is ON, get yours while the temps are hot and the big bug bite hotter.. Terrestrials are just starting and the Caddis and Epeoris are going strong in the evenings depending on which float you do..
Fish one full day and one half day with private lodging:
415$ per person plus tax based on double occ..
Two haves make a whole plus private lodging: Get the best of both worlds fish an evening float on a Caddis and Epeoris hatch stay in private lodging and fish an early morning float throwing the big stones till the late morning.
$350 per person plus tax double occ..
Thanks for subscribing,,, Jeff
Pro Locks and Edge Oar shafts:
Cant say enough about these two combined products. As themselves there really a great addition and serve a purpose for me as a guide on the water so many days a year. The Oar Locks I feel are the best boating addition since the Anchor was invented. They alone produce better rowing stability and maneuverability. The reduced friction and never squeaking are a bonus. Having the connection cable I feel will be an additional safety item by reducing the loss of a paddle. Combined they are the best solution for aging shoulders and for those planning on rowing thousands of oar strokes a year. If I had these when I was 18 and starting off my river rowing career, the pain level today would be far less. It was not that long ago I considered giving up the rowers position due to a torn tendon in my fore arm and chronic shoulder pain. These came along just in time! Best product of the year in my book. Contact: Dan @ Pro Locks
Cheeky Fly Reels;
When they first came onto the market I was skeptical as I am with everything NEW. I have been using these reels for all of my fishing over the last 18 months. Including adventure angling for everything FAST and hard fighting, Roosters and Dorado have been no match. I subjected them to Washington’s largest Chinook run in decades and on northern BC Chinook runs on the Skeena boasting the largest Steelhead and Salmon on the continent. Absolutely zero problems! Next season we will be testing on the bad ass GT of Christmas Island. I think there up to the challenge! Contact: Cheeky Fly Reels or your local fly shop!
Simms sun gloves:
When I opened these up from the package last March I instantly bought another pair thinking they would not possibly last four weeks in Mexico. Here I am into the Yakima Trout season and they still hold up even with the big sticks in hand. A surprisingly great product from Simms fly fishing. I still have the second pair in the package! Contact your local fly shop view at Simms fly fishing.
Iflight Spey line from Rio:
After buying the Skagit Flight heads that are now gathering dust I was very skeptical about these and would have never even looped one on, had it not been for Marlin Roush coming the Bogy House Lodge as a guest last spring. He brought a few prototype products and had these included. I matched one up to my favorite Varsity Spey rod and commenced throwing bombs that dredged the fastest of runs. I was able to fish spots that I passed up before, knowing I could not get deep enough or slow enough to fish properly. The lines cast great too, the taper was not a problem for heavy heads and they produce the quick load I like for fishing tough wades and real sexy steelhead water, so often passed up by most. I feel they are the real deal improvement to Spey fishing steelhead. I am sold for sure and have since loaded a full sort into my everyday pack. In fact not one Spey angler left this season without fishing one as it has become as important as the sink tip itself! Contact your local fly shop view products at Rio fly lines
Thanks for subscribing,
Shortly after winter spring steelhead season I wonder off to do some fun fishing in the Yucatan Peninsula and Baja California Sur, or simply East cape as the Rooster aficionado angler calls it. The Yucatan trip to Ascension bay was plagued with high winds and not so enthusiastic tarpon. I did manage a few fish and presented to a couple willing Permit but beyond that our good fortune was limited to the fantastic service at La Pescadora Lodge in Punta Allen.
Jose the head guide is the next level individual that understands more about the areas Permit than the Permit themselves do. I will just have to call a do over on this one, already have my dates on the calendar!
East Cape fished very well for us with the Dorado bite on pretty much daily. The Roosters were far and few in between and really only seen a couple for the short work we offered on them. I fell off the high horse and went trolling a day and did pretty damn well with a few Wahoo, a Marlin that followed us for a mile and Dorado that came running from a hundred yards to crash our baits. Its the damdest thing we could see them leaping from the left or right and attack our trolled offering. It is something that is as exciting as skating a dry over the sweet spot.
I learned more this season than the last five, some real fish catching experience that will be useful for the years to come. Basically why I love going to new places, the learning curve is fundamentally the game.
Back to reality and the trout fishing world on the Yakima River…that will be in the next posting, Yakima River Drakes, the time is now!
Fathers Day special 15% off trips booked by June 15, used anytime! EM jeff@Brazdasflyfishing.com and add “Fathers Day” in subject line… Gift certs available.
Thanks for following, Jeff
PS: new website coming soon…
Saving Wild Steelhead & Sport Fishing
In a nutshell:
The tribes in Washington State own the fishery hands down not going to change that. If we stop all hatchery production the tribes will fish on the remaining wild steelhead even more than they do now. This will lead to closures and the end of public sports fishing. By all of us working together with the newest technology “pit tags and supplemental brood stocking programs” on river systems under the tribal commercial fishery or rivers with poor performing fish passages there is hope for those Wild steelhead runs and the future of Sport fishing.
The future of wild steelhead and salmon lies in the hands of sport fishermen, we simply care for them the most and in turn we are the most un organized of any user group. The introduction of wild gene bank Rivers is a huge step in the right direction and gene banks should be used as such to revitalize poor returning systems within their geographical areas, or to balance the impact from commercial angling. History has proven that commercial angling, habitat blockages and poor hatchery practice will destroy not only wild fish runs but sportfishing as a way of life.
Is there hope for steelhead angling?
From my first self-caught wild steelhead on the Methow river at age 13 on a muddler I had a feeling that wild steelhead would forge my life. Sports fishermen have commonly promoted and preached the virtues of saving wild salmon and steelhead since the early 80’s. Now we (sportsmen/special interest groups) are systematically killing the sport fishing industry/lifestyle, one of the few industries in the US that has an ecologically tiny footprint. Fishermen have rallied to save the wild steelhead of Washington so dear to them, only to propagate their own demise through some special interest groups. Some groups want to see no sport fishing at all and support a total commercial fishing platform.
Problems facing the recovery of wild steelhead and sportfishing:
-The entire wild fish movement is held hostage by a government entity that seems to manage the fishermen and NOT the fish.
-Tribal fishermen whom have the real power and own 50% of the harvestable amount have a co-management position and first position geographically in our rivers, use non selective gill nets; they actually own the fishery by law and everyone else has the privilege to fish.
-The fracturing of the sports fishing community, by special interest groups. They gather donations to form policy and regulation, forcing the hand of the government regulators. There needs to be diplomacy amongst the sports fishermen, WDFW the Washington State Tribes and the special interest groups as a whole to accomplish the goal of wild fish survival and the continuation of sport fishing for them.
-Science used to form commercial quotas, policy or regulation can be downright incorrect or financially supported to prove whatever they want to prove. Some science is purely outdated and taken into present day context.
Steelheading as a culture:
Steelhead fishing is a culture, with a following of highly passionate people whom all pretty much love them more than any other creature on earth. The cult purest steelheader will passionately pursue alternate involvement in their pursuit towards everything steelhead. We all go through these changes in life brought on by our first introduction to the icon of the North West and later the ensuing psychosis of steelhead angling. Preservation of wild steelhead is highly agreed upon; the act of volunteering for riparian habitat projects, stream restoration, river stewards or financial support is common and has positively structured the lives of many people. The act of fly fishing is but one of the many methods pursued by enthusiasts. As a terminal patient to the cult of steelheaders my involvement has covered every aspect of the not so secret society of the steelhead Junkie. In the ‘80’s our biggest fight was for habitat recovery and protection and the support of catch and release. In the 90’s it was logging regulation hidden behind the spotted owl ESA listing. We as a sport fishing community have undergone a transformation from harvesters (the problem) to protectors of our beloved steelhead.
By 1995 after about 10 years the C&R movement has gained momentum and became successful and many habitat issues regulated, thus improving habitat for today. These features have been the sportsmen greatest factor in retaining/recovering wild runs of steelhead in Washington State.
At 35 years of age I had gone through many of the steps within the steelheader’s cult. With a successful but cost prohibited attempt into the manufacturing side of steelhead spey fishing lines, I made a final push over the edge into the life of being a steelhead guide, leaving behind the high pay high stressed lifestyle of big city heavy construction. Since becoming a guide and fishing 200 plus days a year for 15 years coupled with the prior experiences in environmental and regulatory development the school of hard knocks has shined a spotlight light on protecting wild steelhead and those issues at hand, it’s pretty simple really “don’t kill them” they will take care of themselves given the habitat.
The Science and hatcheries:
Science in general is proven opinion with a college degree behind it; some fisheries science can be directed to say what any organization wants it to say. Biologists that are supported by hatcheries, commercial fishing groups, land development groups and conservation organizations can scientifically prove or dis prove what their supporters want them to. Some biologist’s findings are often played out on a political card table in trade for crab quotas or other commercial entities.
Calculating run size is a compounded guess at best. With co-management, quotas are set by mathematical extrapolation and often involve other countries and states having a stake in by-catch:
-Total run size (a guess).
-Escapement: Needed for survival but an arbitrary number pulled from a hat in the 60’s, actually outdated science from commercial fishing control pre –Boldt decision and has never been changed.
-Harvestable number: Another guess at best as commercial anglers support overharvest and escapement is what’s left.
-Sports men get half of harvestable total.
The sportsmen’s half, which even in their harvest years, never amounted to a fair share in any co managed rivers.
Then to top it off the commercials are not on an actual “quota” like a number there on a “day’s quota” with gill nets a day’s quota is simply a guideline not an actual number. Science/biological findings have a big play in all of this and are consistently wrong with use of mathematical extrapolation. With all this grey area in the management of fisheries it’s no wonder that the run sizes are slipping.
The disdain of hatchery systems is nothing new to steelhead fly fishermen. Back in the day we hated them because of the fishing pressure and ethics of the anglers they attracted. We would fish many other locations for our fish en route to the hatchery during summer months and again in November and December. Back then the wild fish numbers as per our catch rate was often greater than the targeted hatchery fish. Even today the numbers of hatchery fish never overwhelm our wild fish catch on both the Olympic Peninsula and Columbia River tributaries. The idea that wild fish are more aggressive towards flies and artificial lures, I know is ultimately true and this in itself is what makes them the most attractive. Simple understanding of natural selection can tell us that. Non-biters made it to the hatchery rack and then spawned by hatchery employees, biters got conked, pretty simple. These being primarily the highly diluted and domesticated Chambers creek hatchery fish, an undersized subspecies have been politically and financially supported by WDFW and Commercial anglers for way too long.
Supplemental Brood Stocking:
Science stating hatchery fish are detrimental to a wild steelhead population has been used as a leverage point by special interest groups in legal battles to remove hatchery programs from rivers where wild fish exist. These groups cite that when a wild and hatchery fish spawn, their offspring exhibits reduced fitness. They state that genes introduced into a wild population from mixed hatchery/wild spawning harm the population to a point that causes its decline.
While data exists proving that domestication of steelhead, in a classic hatchery environment dilutes genes, recent studies have called into question the notion that all hatcheries and hatchery fish are harming the wild populations they interact with. The recent increase in Snake River fall Chinook, and Snake River coho’s recovery from an extinct classification to a modest run of a few thousand has been attributed in part to re-colonization of historic spawning areas by salmon raised in hatcheries ran by the Nez Pierce tribe. These hatcheries are managed to restore wild runs, instead of producing numbers of homogenized and harvestable fish. Instead of being coddled from egg to smolt, to maintain maximum output, the Nez Piece’s hatchery salmon are subject to an upbringing more similar to life in a wild river. In turn, these fish are not removed from the system near the hatchery to limit their interaction with wild fish, they are instead allowed to spawn in river, with the hatchery only taking a small percentage of the return to maintain egg and milt supply for the upcoming year.
Perhaps hatcheries could be used as a tool for speeding up the restoration of our rivers. A shift in the way state hatcheries were run would have to take place. The ultimate goal of the hatchery would need to change from delivering short-term keep-able fish, to adding to total recruitment of wild spanners. If successful bloodstock programs such as the Nez Piece’s and others throughout the North West can be replicated on a larger scale for steelhead, we as anglers, and conservationists, would benefit.
Purely by Accident:
The use of Chambers creek fish being an early returning and hence early spawning steelhead has separated the hatchery genes from infesting the mid and late winter wild stocks, while diluting the early run of wild winter steelhead. It also has provided a catchable steelhead for the tribe and they in turn allowed the later run to escape by reducing their days on the river during February, March and April by 50% and more. I see this as the reasons those months are so much better than the prior.
A blanket statement that hatcheries are bad in my opinion is not true. Take for instance the upper Columbia steelhead tributaries were steelhead run past hundreds of tribal nets, sportfishing boats and numerous hydroelectric dams. The tribs that have good habitat have been wildly successful in the return of “supplemental broodstocks” and “true wild steelhead” since the federal broodstock program started. I think they have set the bar for future recovery of depleted wild steelhead runs in many locations. The heavy use of pit tags has given them priceless information. I can only hope that this form of recovery will be adopted for some of the troubled runs of former fame within the Puget Sound region. This is not just from scientific study although I have seen them in support of such, but my observance from many days on the water in the area.
There is new technology in the operation of hatcheries, from habitat in rearing raceways that are flowing like rivers to exposure to predation. While some of the old ideals still work the best ie: Supplemental Broodstock with indigenous wild fish is not a new concept and will work managed properly. Brood stocking had a bad name in the past from miss use, and on a personal level I have been disgusted with some of the local Puget Sound project’s gone awry under state management ie; Green River enhancement project. This option is where we must be careful and diplomatic with the user groups federally mandated to be in control of fishing rights. We want them to utilize the best hatchery technology available. Remember they (tribes) own it not us and fighting against them is futile, we might as well support what works best.
Some of the special interest groups attacking the idea of hatcheries often also attack other user groups in the sport fishing community. Plying for blanket regulation supporting their style of angling over others is fracturing the sport fishing community/industry. They do this with catch phrases like “refuge” and portray the fishery as “overcrowded.” They often wave around sound science from those outdated and inferior hatcheries systems. Some of their claims are true but are too drastic for statewide application. They roll with this platform and in reality it gains donation dollars allowing them to fight in court gaining more dollars for their cause, all the while the real issue goes un-changed and rivers get closed and stay closed.
Special interest groups have since turned much attention to the systems in Washington State that are healthiest, of which I agree, to “save what’s easiest to save first”. But many of the Olympic Peninsula rivers that are under there regulative scrutiny already have what they ask for, actual refuge water often at fifty percent of the rivers length equating to miles of stream bed unfishable by everyone. Many of these Peninsula area rivers have gear restriction already in place, pre-dating the conservation groups regulatory attempts; the regulation suggestions are again a blanket regulation and some clearly imposed without any knowledge of the gradient/geography within the rivers. This only divides the statewide sportfishing community and pits local municipality, anglers and guides against each other.
A divided fishing community is what led to the fifty percent judge Boldt decision and the mess we have in Washington State right now. The Boldt decision divided the harvestable quota between commercial fishing tribes and Washington state sports fishermen at 50/50. It also divided the management of all wildlife between the state WDFW and the tribes in Washington. The Federal Government will always side on the tribal side of conflicting issues giving them the real power to legislate action.
A divided sport fishing community is in no way a viable solution to increasing wild stocks fact it will most likely lead to poor etiquette on the river and eventually regulation closing fisheries. (WDFW manages people and if people can’t get along they will close it) just as fast as if there were none left to catch.
Anything leading to the closure of fishing is the worst case scenario and I sometimes think that some special interest groups want to close them. Take the Skagit and other Puget Sound rivers for example: their closure has led to increased pressure on healthy stocks elsewhere in the state. It has led to a conservation group study of the Skagit steelhead resulting in privatized angling on public water, which may never lead to it opening. Closures also led to the snowball effect of regulation suggestion by people that didn’t have an interest in the Olympic Peninsula prior to the closing of the Skagit and the Puget Sound rivers.
The suggestion that the sport fishing is having a negative effect on the survival of wild steelhead is counterproductive. In the BIG picture, without a sport fishing industry who would even care if steelhead survived? Some that say we should stop fishing to protect the fish. Without Steelhead fishing we would lose a tradition founded in the great North West and a heritage formed over hundreds of years in family tradition passed from fathers to son’s and beyond. The loss of Steelhead sportfishing would leave the wolf to guard the hen house. Much like some of our European neighbors where commercials are the only people catching their fish, and only the wealthiest get to fish by owning water via privatized fishing. The sports fishing community with their difference in angling style is an easy target by some local and non-local conservation groups. I wish that they would be more careful at what they ask for they may just get it and we will have fished for steelhead for the last time.
That said, I believe conservation groups can help to organize sportfishing and have a hand on the governing better than ever before. In a perfect world, one without commercial angling controlling the fishery, the anti-hatchery special interest groups would be spot on and would have much more relevance in the conservation of wild steelhead as a whole.
Steelhead fishing has been lost in Puget Sound and it started in the early 80”s at the Nisqually and working its way north to the Skagit. Eerily similar the progression of Net Pen Farming, I am no biologist but am a realist and in simple terms, “how could we be so blind to this all these years”. This is totally my opinion and has been thrown away many times by WDFW, special interest groups, and State officials all of whom may be in the money pot there with the aqua culture industry. Although the science exists that the fish farming industry has been very detrimental to wild stocks everywhere in the world Washington has seemed to turn a blind eye.
The Skagit is one of Washington’s gems of a steelhead river and the biggest attraction to the sport, but its closed and no idea of being opened even though escapement numbers are looking better. This in itself is a slap in the face to sports fishermen, how can such a great piece of water that supports numerous bull trout (ESA listed nearly everywhere else in the state) and salmon fisheries be in such dire strait when it comes to steelhead. I know little of the politics involved there, but from the grapevine, it appears to be loved to the extent of privatized fishing/study on public water. I have seen studies done on smolt migration and they seem to disappear in the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Probably some answer there the size of a battle ship but kept hidden while we fight over hatcheries or till we all have forgotten about the Puget Sound steelhead.
Until Washington State and its sports fishers make the effort to recognize the value of sports fishing as an industry, a whole industry from manufacturing to services, to tax revenue and visitor spending we stand a slim chance at gaining real effective governmental support. The way of life we all take for granted here in the northwest is under attack from within. Without some real organization and acceptance of other user groups in the community the situation will remain unmanageable.
The steelhead runs from the past can rebound they are tougher than most of us realize; sports fishermen just need to work together as one unified voice campaigning for recovery. I feel starting with restrictive gear openings (barbless no bait) on wild steelhead in rivers of Puget Sound would do the state wild fish populations some good. This would increase the viability of the resource by boosting the local economies and gain recognition of the value we all place on wild steelhead. Without the recognition of value by local communities the steelhead is just another species to go away. The lack of recent turnout at the Occupy Skagit meeting is proof that the fishing community is at a stalemate with the fishing closure and may soon be forgot. We will soon have a chance to voice an opinion at commission meetings about regulation of fisheries. Since license sales are what WDFW really cares about if we take a stand and say we won’t buy any licenses without the Skagit opening they may listen. I know I could go all summer without buying a license, if half the fishing public did that sales would plummet and there would be WDFW panic.
What we do as sportsmen in Washington state has relevance and the next ten years will decide if wild steelhead and public sport fishing for them will survive.
My good friend and guest at the Bogy House this last week caught an impressive sized buck from our local waters.
Bruce has been a steelhead angler for over 50 years and a commercial troller in Alaska just as long. Needless to say he knows how to fish and has caught more salmon and steelhead than most of the sports fishermen in Washington combined.
A fish like this brings hope to our small world of steelhead enthusiasts, knowing that it is still alive and passing the Genetics on to future generations of monster winter steelhead. We often see these beasts but seldom touch them.
I was lucky to have been there when he captured this beauty as his biggest steelhead ever anywhere he has fished. I cant tell you how wonderful it is to even be involved with such an event. This is the second largest steelhead I have ever seen personally. We chose this pic as it is NOT enhanced by wide angle it is NOT long armed it is purely a quality specimen for a quality group of guys.
Thanks for the times Bruce and Tony…Jeff