Proposal would end spring steelhead season

  • Wayne Kruse / Outdoor Writer
  • Saturday, November 25, 2000 9:00pm
  • Sports

Outdoor Writer

Steelhead anglers will lose their cherished catch and release seasons this spring on the Skagit, Stillaguamish, and Snohomish river systems, including all tributaries, under a proposal being considered by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.

But an Associated Press story which ran in this newspaper Wednesday, saying hatchery steelhead would have to be released starting Dec. 1, is in error.

During the regular winter steelhead season through the end of February, fin-clipped hatchery steelhead may be kept on the three river systems, as usual. No early-season retention of wild fish will be allowed this winter, however. Instead of going to wild-release rules sometime after December, the rules will be in place starting Dec. 1 on the three systems.

And, the kicker in this situation, the rivers will close to all fishing on March 1. That means no catch-and-release seasons this spring, period.

The reason for this further restriction of an already-minimal season, according to WDFW Region 4 anadromous biologist Curt Kraemer in Mill Creek, is what he terms a “really scary” downward trend in native winter steelhead returns on most of the Northwest coast.

“The forecasts for the wild winter steelhead returning to the Skagit, Stillaguamish and Snohomish systems this winter are the lowest on record,” Kraemer says. “And they represent a continuing downward trend in overall steelhead survival in this area. Last year, the wild run size and spawning escapements for all three river systems were the lowest seen since before 1980.”

Kraemer said the wild-stock escapement goal on the Skagit is 6,000 fish, while the actual escapement last winter was 3,780, and the run size forecast for this winter is 2,400. The escapement goal on the Snohomish system is 6,500 fish, while the actual escapement last winter was 2,790, and the run size forecast for this winter is 4,600. The goal on the Stillaguamish (the North Fork, above Deer Creek), is 950 fish, while the actual escapement last winter was 463, and the run size forecast for this winter is 700.

Kraemer says no one is exactly sure why this largely 1990s trend is occurring, both here and in British Columbia. No one is sure why there is not only a decline in ocean survival and return, but a concurrent decline in brood survival in freshwater as well. No one is sure why returns are somewhat better on the Washington coastal rivers, and the west coast Vancouver Island rivers, and worse in Puget Sound and east coast Vancouver Island rivers.

Kraemer says it can be shown that matters have been made worse in his bailiwick by factors other than poor ocean survival, including river flooding while very young fish are vulnerable.

But whatever the reasons, he says, the critical and long-term decline in the return of native winter steelhead is provable and demonstrable. So this winter’s season for both recreationists and tribal commercials will be targeted on early-returning hatchery steelhead. Since virtually all hatchery fish will have spawned, or been caught, by Feb. 1, fishing after that – including C&R – would be almost entirely on wild-stock fish and, under what Kraemer considers a critical situation, indefensible.

Kraemer says tribal managers have agreed to concentrate their fisheries during the early season, when the vast majority of the catch will be hatchery fish. He says the Stillaguamish tribal in-river fishery will be completed by the end of December. The Tulalip Marine Area 8 fishery is scheduled to be completed by Jan. 6.

“Given expected tribal effort, these seasons should have less than a five-percent impact on the wild resource,” Kraemer says.

The elimination of the extremely popular catch and release spring seasons is based primarily on two factors, one biological and one political.

The biological, Kraemer says, is based on the fact that there is some mortality connected to catch and release fishing.

“The amount,” he says, “depends on who you ask. On our rivers, it’s almost certainly less than five percent, and probably more like two percent of those fish hooked and released.”

It would seem that closing down a considerable portion of a popular season, including financial losses for guides, restaurants, gas stations, and other infrastructure, might be a little shaky based on a two-percent mortality rate.

“There are no hard facts regarding hooking mortality,” says local fishing guide Kris Olsen, “so closing the fishery completely seems unfair. Losing opportunity is something we as sportsmen cannot take lightly. Most times we never get it back, and that fishery is one I am unwilling to lose without a fight.”

The political reason is probably a harder nut for anglers to crack. The department’s “Wild Salmonid Policy,” which is now set in concrete, states WDFW personnel will plan for no recreational fisheries which would target wild steelhead. Stocks of mixed hatchery and wild yes, with wild release, but no targeted fishery on wild stocks, regardless of whether or not they’re C&R.

“Where was the public consideration of this (steelhead) closure?” said Arlington resident and river guide Sam Ingram. “Where was all this ‘openness’ the director talked about when he came in?”

The Wild Salmonid Policy was circulated for a considerable period of time in draft form, Kraemer answers, at a number of public meetings around the state. Did steelheaders protest then, when it may have been possible to make alterations?

“I have little patience,” Kraemer says, “with those who sit on the sidelines and whine, but who won’t enter into the regulation-setting process. If fishermen want public hearings on this issue, then go get them. Write and/or call the director, and the managers, and the (Washington Fish and Wildlife) commission, in Olympia. Ask for explanations, ask for meetings.”

For the Washington Director of Fish and Wildlife, call 360-902-2200 and ask for the director’s office; FAX 360-902-2947. For Lou Atkins, WDFW fisheries management chief, call 360-902-2651. For Bob Gibbons, anadromous (salmon, steelhead) fisheries program manager, call 360-902-2267. For the Fish and Widlife Commission, the nine-member citizen oversight panel, call 360-902-2267; FAX 360-902-2448.

Guide Wade Erickson of Stanwood is attempting to organize an informational meeting between interested steelheaders and the appropriate WDFW managers. Anglers may put their names on a notification list at Hook, Line &Sinker in Smokey Point, phone 360-651-2204. As of Wednesday afternoon, the tackle shop had more than 150 names on the list.

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