The fishing may have been a bit slow, but with 70 degree weather and sunshine on the Olympic Peninsula last weekend, it was still a perfect trip to close out another winter steelhead season.
The one fish our crew brought to hand was pretty sweet too, a healthy, dime-bright wild hen fresh from the salt.
Much has been written in fishing circles lately about the pros, cons and ethics of pursuing iconic native winter steelhead on the fabled rivers of Washington’s “OP”.
Both gear and fly guides have called it quits, citing struggling wild fish returns, crowding and too much “GoPro gloating”.
Others aren’t seeing the cost-benefit value in driving three or four hours multiple times a season and coming up empty handed, an experience I share on more than half my trips to the west end.
Undoubtedly, this sport takes time and serious commitment. The way I see it, swinging flies for silver ghosts through a northwest winter is a deeply personal endeavor. And so is the choice of when, where and why to fish. To each their own.
But perseverance, dedication and downright stubbornness in the face of poor odds (and weather) are simply part of the game. I manage expectations chasing these elusive sea-run trout because I know that like a casino where the house almost always wins, on any given trip there’s a better than good chance we’ll get skunked.
Or we might catch the fish of a lifetime.
We all have to draw our lines somewhere. Even if I don’t agree with their assessments, I applaud anyone who identifies something they believe is a real problem and chooses to no longer be a part of it.
And there are real problems with wild fish runs across the Northwest. Particularly on the Olympic Peninsula where substantial habitat protected in Olympic National Park means runs of native steelhead “should” be recovering. But wild returns and estimated spawner escapement continue on a downward trend. Some argue that Washington’s wild steelhead are slowly going extinct.
Looking at the 2012-13 creel reports for the Olympic Peninsula, it’s clear that we sport anglers do have some blood on our hands.
On one popular river, 858 wild steelhead were recorded as landed and released by recreational fishermen last season (2013-14 saw 611 released). With fish contacts often going unrecorded by the checkers, it’s fair to assume that the actual number caught was over 1,000, out of a total run whose return is estimated at just under 4,000 fish annually in recent years. Of those, 46 were recorded as kept by
neanderthals anglers that felt the need to bonk a wild steelhead and throw it on the grill.
When you add in a C & R mortality rate of close to 10% (coldwater, selective gear release mortality estimates vary from study to study, from below 2% to nearly 20%. If anyone has a better estimate for wild steelhead, please add it in a comment), it’s fair to assume that anglers killed somewhere around 150 wild steelhead on this river between December 1st, 2012 and April 15th, 2013, accidentally or intentionally.
That’s a substantial number of dead fish. Clear evidence that all recreational fisherman, whether they’re swinging flies or pulling plugs, should consider their impact and take steps to reduce harm.
But does that impact mean as ethical, responsible catch & release anglers should stop fishing our state’s coastal rivers for wild winter steelhead? Particularly in light of so many other more destructive factors threatening these fish that we can focus on?
At least for now, I don’t believe so.
I’ve personally seen enough doomed fish thrashing in gill-nets to know that 150 dead fish in a season pales in comparison to what other user groups take from these rivers. Even without finite tribal harvest totals, some basic math when looking at wild spawner escapement versus total run size is pretty depressing.
If sport fishermen may kill around 150 wild steelhead annually on the OP river mentioned above, and the total run size is estimated close to 4,000 wild fish, yet spawner escapement in 2012-13 was calculated at only 2,218 fish, even if you assume the actual return was somewhat less than 4,000 that year, where did the other (estimated) 1,500 wild fish go?
There are of course losses from many other cuts, natural and human, but one look at the netting schedule (up to five consecutive days a week on many rivers) or the gill-nets stacked from bank to bank make it pretty clear what the biggest factor currently killing Washington’s threatened state fish on the Olympic Peninsula is.
I unabashedly support the right of the sovereign tribal nations to harvest Washington’s salmon and steelhead. Our ancestors signed those treaties just like theirs did, and we need to honor them.
And for conservationists, the native tribes can be vastly impactful partners and allies. They have undertaken important habitat restoration, environmental protection and economic and cultural development work in recent years. Washington’s tribes are valued members of our state’s community and deserve our respect.
But the responsibility that comes with being a steward of the resource includes the need to take a hard look at species abundance when determining your harvest. And in the case of steelhead, it is simply not sustainable to continue netting these iconic fish at anywhere near the current rate if you take into account the trend in wild returns.
What’s more, a nearly ten to one split of the catch is hardly the equitable division of resources promised by the Honorable Judge Boldt, even if that resource management system itself is purely focused on extraction and far from conservation-oriented.
If we want to get real about wild steelhead recovery, and truly act as equal co-managers, then the gill-nets should come out from February 1st to July 1st annually to protect native spawners. Or at the very least, serious harvest method and schedule changes need to be considered.
Over-harvest might be the most pressing concern for native steelhead on the OP, but it doesn’t take into account the decades of suppressed spawning potential resulting from the dozens of tributaries and creeks that have been clear-cut around, diverted, armored or blocked by culverts. All too common sights on any drive up the Washington coast.
And let’s not even get started on fish hatcheries.
Compared to the host of greater challenges they face; from archaic harvest practices to hatchery mismanagement, hydropower and overabundant logging and development, in my opinion the impact of responsible catch & release sport anglers on the health of wild steelhead returns is minimal enough to keep my fly in the water for the time being.
For me, reducing my personal harm to an acceptable level means playing and handling wild fish carefully, keeping them in the river prior to release, and asking my buddies to do the same. It means I won’t use bait for native fish if I happen to be gear fishing. And I won’t name drop certain rivers or share locations for coastal steelhead fisheries on forums, social media or this blog.
I’m not going to tell you where to go, but I’m also not going to urge you not to try. Just know that anyone who steps into our hallowed steelhead waters shoulders a share of the responsibility for their fate.
And minimizing my impact means I certainly won’t exercise the antiquated legal right to kill a wild
unicorn steelhead every year on some Washington rivers.
But most importantly, I strongly believe that the potential for conservation-oriented fishermen (and women!) to be a part of the solution for these wild fish outweighs the limited impact we have when catch & release fishing with selective, barbless flies or gear.
When it comes to wild steelhead, I don’t believe that keeping them secret will keep them safe. Because what these fish need most of all is more advocates, not less.
Advocates in the gear and fly fishing communities to lobby the Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife for mandatory statewide wild steelhead catch & release, no bait and selective gear regulations, as well as additional rivers set aside as wild fish gene banks.
Advocates who will collaborate on habitat restoration with the NWIFC, Quinault, Hoh, Quileute, Makah and other native tribes, as well as environmental groups like Hoh River Trust and the North Olympic Salmon Coalition.
Advocates who will pressure tourism businesses and the City of Forks to support better resource stewardship and spread the idea that folks don’t need to kill a wild fish to come spend money in their towns.
And advocates who will work with the tribal co-managers to create a new management system where both user groups are receiving full access to their legally mandated 50% of the resource, without surviving fish beyond the escapement goal simply being re-allotted to the gill-nets downstream.
Maybe we even need advocates for further hatchery reforms, shorter fishing seasons, limits to fishing from a boat, increased non-resident license fees, reducing the number of in-state guides and a ban on all out-of-state guiding outfits… But that’s a conversation for another day, preferably streamside over Rainiers chilled in cold glacial melt.
I have yet to meet someone who encounters a native steelhead and isn’t immediately passionate about protecting them. They are just that special.
And so are the wild places where they swim.
The soft clean smell of moss and moisture that hangs in the rainforest air. The gurgle of cold turquoise water flowing among countless shades of green, melt from glaciers on Mt. Olympus and a dozen other craggy peaks.
Sitka spruce, hemlock and red cedar trees that have lived since the Dark Ages, their branches clothed in long strands of Grandfather’s Beard moss that nearly touches the waist high sword ferns on the forest floor below.
And the elk, otter, bear and other wildlife whose presence is seldom seen but frequently suggested through tracks in the mud, fresh piles of scat in a meadow or a musky scent on the breeze.
I would visit these places to hike, camp and explore even if there was not a single fish in the rivers.
But under those cloudy waters and typically dreary skies, some of the world’s largest anadromous rainbow trout swim on a journey towards cold, clean gravel in the shadow of the Olympic Mountains. They have spent the last few years feasting in the ocean somewhere south of the Aleutians, and now they return home.
Wild steelhead are undoubtedly “one of the best things the fish world has come up with.” A species that has inspired an angling tradition as cherished and storied as any in North America.
Native fish big, bright and supercharged from the salt. Strong enough to run against the heavy current at incomprehensible speeds, capable of stripping even the hardiest drag until the angler on the other end is sweating bullets and expecting to see the arbor knot at the end of their line at any moment.
Fish we’ve chosen to celebrate by naming them one of our official state emblems. Fish who perfectly embody the wildness of the place they, and we, call home. Fish worth fighting for.
That’s not to say the Olympic Peninsula steelheading experience is everything that’s been preached by dozens of fishing mags or pimped by guide outfits over the decades.
And it’s not what it used to be, when anglers like Syd Glasso could catch two dozen fish in a morning swinging traditional Spey flies.
The rivers do get crowded. Patience and miles of bushwhacking through devils club can be required to find quiet water. And as soon as you find an empty run, a parade of drift boats might just appear around the next bend.
But with a few marquee systems being the main focus, it’s easy to forget what else is out there. If you drive Highway 101 from Port Angeles to Aberdeen, there are over a half-dozen steelhead rivers within your reach. The crowding is real and should be taken into account when considering any trip, but if you’re willing to do your own scouting and seriously work for it, there will almost always be good water.
And if one of those boats does happen to come floating through your hard-earned spot, I believe a friendly wave and a good attitude goes a long way in this fanatical brotherhood.
It’s important to remember we are all spending valuable time and money in pursuit of the same goal: an encounter with a wild creature in an untamed place that takes us back to something purer than our modern condition.
I’ve been lucky enough to make a good number of trips the past few years to swing flies and float gear on the steelhead rivers of Washington’s rugged coast.
And we caught a few fish.
In no way are these fisheries perfect; challenges plague the runs on every river out there. And that’s not even counting the standard winter fishing problems like pissing rain, finger-numbing cold, finicky fish, muddy or snowy dirt roads and rivers that frequently resemble a slurry of chocolate milk.
The Olympic Peninsula is not what it used to be. But what part of the American West is? Fishing for winter steelhead is tough to begin with. And it’s tougher today than it has ever been.
That’s part of what makes it so special. And so damn rewarding.
I was lucky enough to be born in this state to a family of commercial and recreational anglers, hunters and outdoorsmen. My grandfather’s stories of multiple twenty pound steelhead from a single run are something I can barely fathom today.
But that doesn’t stop me from trying to recreate them.
On the Washington coast there are still big, bright native fish to be caught in truly epic wild places with ample public access. That’s a rarity just about anywhere on earth, certainly in the Lower 48.
Fishing and time spent outdoors, though an integral part of my life and upbringing, is now mostly a weekend passion.
That’s because I’ve spent my workdays consulting on political campaigns, lobbying legislators and state agencies, and crafting media relations, communications and online marketing plans for public policy issues.
And I’ve had the pleasure of working with numerous local companies, conservation groups, Native American tribes, agencies and state, local and congressional politicians in my short career.
One fundamental thing I find again and again is that people, whether elected leaders or everyday citizens, don’t care about abstracts, data or talking points.
They care about things that matter to their lives, their families and their communities. Things they can experience. Things they can see, touch and feel a connection with.
I believe the same rings true for protecting wild steelhead.
The average citizen doesn’t know or care much about these fish. They haven’t experienced the connection to heritage, history and the pulsing natural world that pursuing them can provide. Nor have they felt the soaring excitement and simple fun that comes when doing battle with such a worthy opponent.
And they don’t know the quiet satisfaction and reassuring sense of place that comes while watching one swim strongly away, a brief detour from it’s timeless journey to further the cycle of their species.
Abandoning our catch & release angling access to the fish and rivers of the Olympic Peninsula (and the rest of the Northwest) is only going exacerbate that apathy and disinterest, while doing next to nothing to slow the decline of wild steelhead in our state.
The core group of anglers and conservationists who currently work to protect these fish are not going to be enough to save them in the long run. They don’t have the votes, the voice or the manpower.
After over a century of habitat destruction and mismanagement, restoring runs of wild steelhead (and salmon) on the Olympic Peninsula and the rest of the West Coast will require the tireless effort of people who care deeply about these fish. Everyday people who will get their hands dirty, literally and figuratively, to fight for them.
There is no better recruiting tool I know than the feel of a big, wild steelhead dancing frantically on the end of a fishing line.
We each need to draw our own lines, in fishing and in life. And as long as I am able, my line will continue swinging through a rainforest river in pursuit of these iconic fish at every chance I get.
If you’re going to fish for wild steelhead in our state, take the time to do your part to keep them around.
Write the Governor, WDFW Commission, legislature, BIA or Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission about the need to protect wild steelhead with mandatory catch & release and selective gear regulations, additional wild fish gene banks, increased wild spawner escapement goals, and serious changes to in-river netting harvest, methods and schedules.
Opening rivers with (somewhat) healthy wild steelhead returns closer to the population centers to reduce angling pressure on the coast would be a big win as well.
Support local businesses and guides who preach that the value of a wild steelhead in tourism and sportfishing income is greater than the supermarket price-per-pound of a dead one in a net. Or if you want to get dirty, volunteer for a redd survey or stream restoration work with one of the many conservation groups in our region.
And if you see others abusing the resource, whether it’s a net blocking the entire river or a restaurant with wild steelhead on the menu, don’t hesitate to take a picture and call them out.
For more information on what you can do to help wild steelhead in the Pacific Northwest, please join the Wild Steelhead Coalition or check out the film Wild Reverence by Shane Anderson.
Casting, Tree, Waders, Log, Firepit and Sasquatch Flask photos by the talented Ben Lim. All others taken by Chase Gunnell in Washington during the winter and spring of 2014.
All Rights Reserved. Please reuse only with permission.