Replenish steelhead runs with return to hatcheries

As keeper of the angling archives for the Snohomish Sportsmen’s Club for the past 55 years, I am somewhat amazed by all the furor over hatchery fish and steelhead in particular.

If a person is a poor historian they can’t be a good fish biologist. My archive room has many ancient records of fish plants going back 100 years.

This spring’s Wild Fish Conservancy lawsuit to eliminate hatchery steelhead will seriously harm steelhead fishing and Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife Director Phil Anderson should have ordered the proper release of these marvelous fish instead of paying the legal fees for the Wild Fish Conservancy in a settlement earlier this year.

I have written numerous articles in the Snohomish Tribune’s Seniors publication about steelheading on the Snohomish and Stillaguamish rivers and the way it was. As I mentioned in the June 2014 edition of the Seniors paper, Henry Grill, my beloved fishing partner of 30 plus years was born in 1894. I learned about early angling from him and other old timers such as Bert Spada, George Harrison and George Thompson, to name a few.

In 1997, I prepared a large document as input on the Wild Salmonid Policy titled “Researching the Pilchuck Winter Steelhead.” The county did the fish planting until the state Game Department was formed by an initiative in 1932. Under Snohomish County management, Lake Stevens was planted in 1920 with 50,000 steelhead and again in 1923 with 25,000. Other local lakes were similarly stocked. The Pilchuck River was stocked in 1922 with 114,000 steelhead. Did the steelhead that Vic Mathison caught in 1929 and Earl Averill caught in 1930 from the Pilchuck have hatchery blood in them? Who knows? Hatchery fish spawn and produce wild fish.

In a personal interview with baseball immortal Earl Averill on Jan. 3, 1979, he recalled hooking 50 steelhead in one day near Lochsloy on the Pilchuck. Earl and friends once landed 34 steelhead in one day at Schwarzmiller’s Drift on the Pilchuck.

Fish traps were numerous in the past and were located on Canyon Creek, Woods Creek, Elwell Creek and the Pilchuck River as well as the Wallace River Hatchery, which was built in 1907. On page 66 of my book “Snohomish, My Beloved County—An Angler’s Anthology,” the minutes of the Snohomish Sportsmen’s Club of the 1930s show how concerned the sportsmen were about trapping too many Pilchuck steelhead. The young steelhead were being planted in other streams. They wanted 80 percent of the spawn returned to the Pilchuck.

It was not until the spring of 1940 that biologist Clarence Pautzke unraveled the mystery of steelhead migration on the Green River. Let me quote from the Snohomish Sportsmen’s Club minutes of Dec. 12, 1940. “Bob Meigs of the Game Department gave a talk on the run of steelhead in the Snohomish River System and the findings of the biologists in controlling the runs of steelhead. The following resolution was adopted: ‘Whereas the steelhead trout run in the Snohomish River and its tributaries has reached a point of depletion from numerous causes and, whereas the fishermen and members of the Snohomish County Sportsmen’s Association realize they must take either mature or immature fish, now therefore be it resolved that the fishermen and members of the Snohomish County Sportsmen’s Association go on record and recommend the following: The opening of the Snohomish River and its tributaries to its natural and unnatural barriers be delayed until the first day of June, otherwise the present seasons be maintained with the exception that the Wallace River be opened to steelhead fishing in the regular steelhead season.’”

The Pilchuck was planted with steelhead smolt 119 times from 1958 until 1997. Under Pautzke’s direction, we enjoyed the golden age of steelheading. He planted thousands of fish and had steelhead returning to streams that never had them before. The Reiter Steelhead Ponds at Gold Bar were dedicated in his memory on April 6, 1975.

In July, state Sen. Kirk Pearson, R-Monroe, came to our home in search of historic steelhead information. I gave him three pages of hand-written information from Taft’s Fishing Guide of 1925. For example, the South Fork of the Snoqualmie River was planted with 325,000 steelhead in 1922. The middle fork received 35,000 by 1922 and the North Fork of the Snoqualmie was planted with 160,000 steelhead in 1922.

I also gave Sen. Pearson a copy of my book “Snohomish, My Beloved County” and suggested he read page 66. (I forgot to mention our salmon and steelhead are thriving in the Great Lakes. The Saugeen River, a tributary to Lake Huron, now has an annual run of naturally spawning Chambers Creek {South Tacoma} steelhead of between 45,000 and 60,000 fish.} The recent Salmon, Trout, Steelhead Magazine has featured the fantastic runs of “our steelhead” in Michigan. {I am also glad that mackinaw trout were planted in Wallace Lake and Lake Isabel near Gold Bar in 1920. )

Hatchery steelhead and wild steelhead are direct descendants of native steelhead, and are in fact, the same fish. They were not invented in a test tube at the University of Washington or some other place. As I have said many times, I never met a hatchery fish I didn’t like. They eat the same food in the ocean and taste the same as other steelhead.

We were catching hatchery steelhead over 60 years ago at Thomas’s Eddy on the Snohomish River. Cecil Nixon, who managed the Tokul Creek Hatchery was clipping a ventral fin and we knew these steelhead were bound for the Snoqualmie River.

The Wild Fish Conservancy would like to close the Tokul Creek Hatchery and other hatcheries. This would hurt our alpine lakes and lower elevation lakes as well as beaver ponds and deny future generations the opportunity to know the type of fishing us old-timers knew. The end result of this will mean millions of lost dollars to our economy. Sen. Pearson knows this and is working hard to save our hatcheries.

Bob Heirman lives in Snohomish.

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