The eyeball was one, but there were a lot of others: The Sauk pool, the Mixmaster, B&M boom, Dutchman’s riffle, Faber ferry, leaning cedar, staircase, Jackman Creek.
They roll off the tongue. Fishing water. Historic drifts on the middle Skagit River, making up what was once the best winter steelhead fishery in the state. Plywood sleds, wood drift boats, Cherry Bobbers, boondoggin’. Three dozen guides on the water, anglers from every state and three or four foreign countries. Boat trailers crowding Highway 20 at 4 a.m., with a line at the ramp in Rockport.
Exciting times in the Skagit Valley if you were a steelhead fisherman.
Then, of course, the fishery crashed. Native-stock Puget Sound steelhead were placed under federal control via the Endangered Species Act in July 2000. Suddenly, the state Department of Fish and Wildlife had to work with National Oceanic and Atmospheric (NOAA) Fisheries and tribal co-managers, and accept input from a wide range of non-tribal user groups.
The Mixmaster hasn’t seen a steelhead rod since 2010, the last hatchery smolts were planted in 2013, and the Skagit basin no longer supports hatchery-generated steelhead.
But Department of Fish and Wildlife’s fish managers say wild stocks have rebounded under the no-fishing regimen, and that there are enough winter steelhead expected back to cautiously allow a recreational winter fishery. It will be limited, and it will be catch-and-release, but it will be the first since 2010.
If NOAA accepts the plan.
State fish managers have crafted a proposal to allow fisheries for wild steelhead in the Skagit, Sauk and Suiattle rivers, and the proposal is currently being considered by the feds.
“In recent years, we’ve seen more steelhead returning to the Skagit Basin,” said Edward Eleazer, the state’s regional fish program manager in Mill Creek, “and given the low percentage of steelhead mortality associated with this (catch-and-release) sport fishery, we don’t expect it will harm efforts to recover steelhead populations.”
Eleazer said a decision from NOAA is expected in late February. Regardless, there likely won’t be enough time to mount a fishery this winter and spring, he said. A new program requires planning, public input and department personnel, he said, all of which will take time. The department plans to monitor the fishery heavily.
There’s a lot of interest in reopening the Skagit basin to wild steelhead, said Curt Kraemer, a retired Department of Fish and Wildlife biologist in Marysville. Kraemer was one of the founders of “Occupy Skagit,” a loose group of anglers who have protested in support of the reopening by holding a “fish-in” annually in closed water (no fish were harmed). Kraemer said the group’s efforts have helped keep pressure on the state to plan a new fishery when the biological time was right, and that the state proposal is pretty much the same framework the group has suggested.
His phone has been busy since the state release came out, he said.
Eleazer said the tribes involved (Sauk-Suiattle, Swinomish, Upper Skagit, and the Skagit River System Cooperative) apparently have agreed to the size of the run forecast and are on board with the proposal. A harvest quota will be worked out, Eleazer said, based on the predicted run size and an accepted mortality rate for the catch-and-release fishery.
The middle Skagit and the lower Sauk are the prime waters in question, and the months of February, March and April are historically the best time for big steelhead. Kraemer said the largest winter fish he has personally seen was taken in that time period and weighed 31-plus pounds.
Eleazer said the proposed season would recognize the value of that timing.
Both Kraemer and Eleazer said there are still a lot of details remaining to iron out — assuming NOAA agrees to the framework — and that there are groups and individuals either opposed to the whole concept or desiring a more restrictive set of regulations.
To give the public a chance to hear the proposal explained and to offer input the state has scheduled two meetings: Friday at the Mill Creek regional office (16018 Mill Creek Blvd.), and Tuesday at the Sedro-Woolley Community Center (702 Pacific St.). Both meetings are scheduled from 6 to 8 p.m. The phone number at the Mill Creek office is 425-775-1311.
Tackle allowed probably would be the standard “selective gear” outlined in the fishing pamphlet: single, barbless hooks, no bait, and so forth.
Timing, however, likely will take some discussion. Length of season, continuous or split, straight through from Dec. 1 to the end of April, or different timing for different sections of river, time for flies only or hardware or both, weekends only, or more than that? Should power boats be allowed? In some part or all?
Lots of questions still to be answered. The Skagit is a beautiful river, but its steelhead need your assistance, so try to make one of the above meetings.