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Published: Sunday, August 31, 2008, 11:29 a.m.

The Golden Age of Steelheading

Starting in the 1940s, a commitment to hatchery production ushered in more than 40 years of great steelhead fishing. Sadly, those days are long gone.

  • Late Herald photographer Jim Leo captured this scene of steelhead anglers at the Oscar and Fay Hoover Recreation Area on the Snohomish River Dec. 2, 1...

    Photo by Jim Leo, courtesy of Bob Heirman

    Late Herald photographer Jim Leo captured this scene of steelhead anglers at the Oscar and Fay Hoover Recreation Area on the Snohomish River Dec. 2, 1957.

On Dec. 2, 1957, Herald photographer Jim Leo was at the Oscar and Fay Hoover Recreation Area, across the Snohomish River from Thomas' Eddy, and snapped a picture of steelheaders gathered there for opening day. (A picture is worth a thousand words.)
Jim gave me a copy of this magnificent photo and it has adorned my den wall for many years. I call it "Thomas' Eddy In the Golden Years" and how well I remember -- because I was there. Many old timers pictured have long departed, but some of us are still around and remember it vividly.
As keeper of the archives for the Snohomish Sportsmen's Club and the Snohomish County Sportsmen's Association, we have numerous documents including minutes from the 1930s, photos, old movies, videos, and planting and catch records that contradict what is going on today regarding steelhead management.
Many of the steelhead caught on the Snohomish at the time of Leo's photo had a ventral fin missing and were bound for Cecil Nixon's Tokul Creek Hatchery on the Snoqualmie System. As I said in my book, "Snohomish, My Beloved County," "I never met a hatchery fish I didn't like!"
Today's experts want to close the Tokul Creek Hatchery and manage the Snoqualmie for "wild" fish. This would be a disaster for anglers and the economy.
I've been making "wild" fish out of hatchery fish for half a century. The coho of Bunk Foss Creek featured on the front page of The Herald on Dec. 26, 2000, are of hatchery origin -- and they produce wild offspring.
As I stood beside a remote beaver pond last month with Barbara Liggett, a cutthroat trout jumped out of the water and Barbara said, "What a beautiful wild trout." I replied, "He thinks he is but he was planted by me as a fingerling." I then added: "Are babies born in the hospital any different than babies born at home?" She said "No," and I said, "Just think of the hatchery as the hospital."
After biologist Clarence Pautzke concluded the first scientific study of steelhead on the Green River in 1940, the mystery of steelhead migration was solved and hatchery production greatly increased, ushering in more than 40 years of great steelheading. Hatchery fish provided wonderful recreation and countless anglers reaped the bountiful harvest.
(A wild fish is any fish that comes up through the gravel even though both parents were hatchery fish. So how do we get more wild fish? Simple, we plant more hatchery fish! All fish originally came from native fish.)
In past years, steelheaders purchased punch cards and the designated funds were used to raise steelhead and purchase stream bank access. We always paid our way. Several things caused the demise of steelhead but two played a major role: commercialization and the failure to control predators.
A portion of the Department of Fish and Wildlife Statewide Steelhead Management Plan states: "The steelhead management plan is necessary because in spite of seventy years of conservation efforts directed at the state's steelhead stocks, many of these stocks are at a fraction of their historic numbers. Five of the seven distinct population segments that exist in Washington are currently federally listed under the Endangered Species Act." Of course, that statement is not exactly true. How does one explain 40 wonderful years of great steelheading caused by hatchery fish?
My good friend, former State Sen. Cliff Bailey, who owns land adjacent to the Snohomish River, recently said, "Bob, I've lost the desire to go steelheading. The runs are in a death spiral. It's no fun to fish for them because I've little chance of catching one."
My, how times have changed. On Dec. 29, 1977, 100 steelhead were hooked at the Eddy and Ed Cort of Marysville landed two at the same time. We have pictures.
Meanwhile, in Michigan, our salmon and steelhead are thriving and providing great angling. Mark Spada, the tackle representative for the Yakima Bait Co., said, "Business is way down and sales are plummeting. The average angler just wants to catch a fish and all we've been getting is decreased angling opportunity."
Yes, Jim Leo's beautiful photo speaks of an era apparently unknown to the new "experts" on steelhead recovery. Several of us great grandfathers remember when the old Game Department was one of the most outstanding agencies in America and we enjoyed "The Golden Age of Steelheading."

Author and conservationist Bob Heirman lives in Snohomish.

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