Pilchuck River needs steelhead

One of my prize possessions is a marvelous photo of Pilchuck Julia that adorns my den wall. The date of her birth is unknown and one source said she lived to be 104 years of age and another said she died in her 80’s. She passed away April 24,1923, and is buried in the GAR Cemetery west of Snohomish beside her husband and son. Historians often refer to her as “The Last of the Pilchucks.” She lived her entire life on the banks of the Pilchuck River.

Just think of all the changes she saw in her lifetime. There were only Native Americans in the area, the forests were primeval and beautiful, the Pilchuck River was narrow and deep and could be travelled by canoe, and there were millions of salmon and steelhead.

And where are we today? Chinook salmon of the Pilchuck are few and far between and steelhead are scarce, but I remember when the Pilchuck was a steelhead paradise. Once upon a time, I couldn’t wait for opening day in December and we often caught the daily limit of three steelhead. Some were very large and a few “cleaned our clock” so to speak. Some of the early December giants were more than 20 pounds.

As the long time secretary-treasurer of the Snohomish Sportsmen’s Club, (54 years) I have amassed considerable historical angling information on the Pilchuck and knew and fished with several great steelheaders, Brick Peacor and Les McCulloch of Machias and Vic Mathison of Snohomish, for example.

Let me quote from the Game Department Bulletin of January 1950. “The second step is the opening of habitat by the removal or surmounting of man-made or natural obstructions. As an example, within the last two years 30 dams and log jams have been removed. A number of barriers have been surmounted with fish ladders, the most notable being the Pilchuck dam located on the Pilchuck River, tributary of the Snohomish River.”

Hey! Wait a minute, you can’t do that! We put logs in the streams now to recover fish. Old timers remember the Corp of Engineers’ snag boat the W. T. Preston removing logs from area rivers — and we enjoyed the golden age of steelheading.

In 1997 I wrote “Researching the Pilchuck Winter Steelhead” as input on the “Wild Salmonid Policy” and sent it to the Game Commission. The document shows the Pilchuck was planted with winter steelhead smolts 119 times from 1958 thru 1997 and many other times since 1915. Some early steelhead fry plants in lakes draining to the Pilchuck were as follows: Lake Stevens — 50,000 in 1920 and 25,000 in 1923. Menzel Lakes — 5,000 in 1915 and 12,000 in 1923. Swartz Lake (Waites Mill Pond) — 5,000 in 1916 and 12,000 fry in 1923. The Pilchuck River was also planted in 1922 with 114,000 steelhead fry.

In the days before the Game Department came into being in 1932, the county ran the show and a steelhead hatchery was located on a small tributary of the South Fork of the Stillaguamish River. It later became Otto Brenner’s Trout Farm.

Among the Snohomish Sportsmen’s Club’s prize possessions are our minutes from the 1930’s. In the early 1930’s, the Game Department had a trap just downstream from the Pilchuck Dam. The steelhead were trapped and their fingerlings planted in other rivers. On page 66 of my book “Snohomish, My Beloved County — An Angler’s Anthology,” I quote from our minutes of May 11, 1936: “Butch Schmelzer, chairman of the fish committee, recommending 80 percent of the spawn taken from the traps in the Pilchuck be returned to that stream.” I fired steam engines for Butch Schmelzer from the time I was 18 years old and he knew a great deal about the early Pilchuck. The sportsmen were worried that too much Pilchuck spawn was being taken to other rivers. (The same thing was true on Woods Creek near Monroe where the Woods Creek steelhead were widely distributed in 1934.) Another little bit of Pilchuck history is recorded in our minutes of March 21, 1938: “Frank Barrett reported a run of smelt had gone up the Pilchuck River.”

Do hatchery fish spawn? Of course and steelheaders have caught and released numerous spawned-out winter steelhead on the Pilchuck through the years, but now the Pilchuck is no longer planted with winter steelhead smolts. Enter the dark ages on the Pilchuck. The Pilchuck River is mismanaged from the mouth to the Pilchuck Dam. And what have we lost? In the winter of 1953-1954, the Pilchuck produced a catch of 2,637 winter steelhead in 85 days of fishing, an average of 31 fish a day for the anglers. Thank God for hatchery fish and Clarence Pautzke who ushered in the golden age of steelheading!

Some years ago, our chinook, coho and steelhead were planted in Michigan. Today, they enjoy an angling bonanza on naturally spawning hatchery fish with a generous daily limit. Of course, they have no commercial netting and sea lions to contend with.

In conclusion, can the Pilchuck be returned to it’s former glory? Yes it can but not by the present methods. As my friend, former State Senator Cliff Bailey said: “Bob, I’m a farmer! If I’m going to grow corn, I plant corn, and if I’m going to grow beans, I plant beans, and if you are going to grow fish you plant fish because the habitat gets worse with each passing day.”

So one of our great treasures, the Pilchuck River, lies fallow, waiting for a resurgence of winter steelhead that will never come without hatchery fish. I haven’t seen a steelheader be disappointed after catching a fish that fights the same, tastes the same and is a direct descendent of a “native” fish. Tackle dealers would be most happy and their businesses would improve.

Bob Heirman is the longtime secretary-treasurer of The Snohomish Sportsmen’s Club.

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