Change is never easy. This is particularly true for anglers. We are passionate about our fishing and our fish – in this case steelhead. We are reluctant to change, if only because we have lost great steelhead fisheries to closure, such as the Skagit, and fear losing further opportunity. But in the face of such change, we must ask ourselves: Would those fisheries still be open had we been willing to heed the evidence and change sooner?
This past year, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife – to its credit — established a North Coast Steelhead Advisory Group to gather information about how to best manage the winter steelhead sport fishery. The group was comprised of 13 people with knowledge of the fishery and included both gear and fly anglers as well as guides. It also had geographic diversity, with folks from Forks to Seattle.
After several meetings and votes, the group arrived at a series of recommendations (posted below). All recommendations were supported by a majority of members, and several received unanimous support. The general consensus was that what we have done in the past has not worked and that it was time for something new. The data support this conclusion. Not everyone agreed on the same approach, but all agreed that we only have control over our fishery and that we need to do our part to ensure a healthy future for OP wild steelhead. Sport anglers are concerned about tribal harvest and tribes are concerned about the number of fish being caught by sport anglers. The circular discord has not improved communication between tribes and anglers, nor has it improved sport fishing opportunity or the health of OP wild steelhead. On the contrary, the fish have paid the price as demonstrated in the attached graphs showing the declining escapements in the Hoh, Queets and Quileute systems.
The fact is that both fisheries need to be improved to rebuild wild steelhead. The North Coast Steelhead Advisory Group’s recommendations are an important step forward in that regard. Here is our take on several of the rules.
- First and foremost, releasing wild steelhead and rainbow trout will put more fish on the spawning grounds, which is critical to rebuilding wild steelhead populations on the OP.
- Second, barbed hooks are more difficult to remove and create larger wounds than barbless hooks. Extended and poor handling reduces the chances of a fish surviving to spawn.
- Third, bait is the most effective method and partly as a result, we are catching – not including fish hooked and lost – more than the entire escapement in the Sol Duc and close to it in the Bogachiel and Hoh Rivers.
- Fourth, bait is more likely to result in mortality of post-spawn fish (kelts) that are feeding as they migrate back to the ocean after spawning, and it produces substantially higher encounter and mortality rates with juvenile steelhead and smolts, which is not trivial considering the thousands of anglers that fish the OP every year.
Consider this when thinking about the regulations. The OP steelhead fisheries are the only remaining fisheries in the lower-48 where 30 to 40 percent of the population is harvested and 70 to 100 percent of the remaining population is caught by sport anglers. What happened to the other places where that occurred? They are closed, their steelhead populations are protected under the Endangered Species Act, or both.
We can prevent that on the OP. These regulations will show that we are serious about improving the escapement of wild steelhead, and that we as anglers are willing to minimize our effects on the fish to maximize chances that those fish survive to spawn and support future fisheries. Consider this, most anglers fish in upstream areas where steelhead have already escaped the tribal commercial fishery. We are the last hurdle that wild steelhead cross before spawning. Does it not make sense to do whatever possible to ensure that those fish that made it past the nets have the best chance of successfully spawning? Does it not make sense to reduce our impacts, not only on adults, but also on juveniles that represent the next generation of steelhead?
Ultimately, we want healthy wild steelhead on the OP and reliable opportunity for anglers. This can only be achieved through improving the escapement and condition of wild steelhead. Speak up in support of the proposals put forward by the North Coast Steelhead Advisory Group and know that you are helping secure a brighter future for OP wild steelhead and fishing opportunity.
Rules/regulations proposed and voted on by WDFW North Coast Sport Fishing Advisory Group:
- Prohibit the use of internal combustion motors on all North Coast Rivers.
- Remove “Selective Gear Rules” on all North Coastal Rivers, and replace with:
- Barbless hooks during the entire steelhead season.
- Only one hook with up to three points.
- Release all wild steelhead and rainbow trout.
- Limit the use of bait to those times and river segments with hatchery steelhead present
- Lower Bogachiel during hatchery steelhead season
- Lower Calawah during hatchery steelhead season
- Prohibit fishing from floating devices on the Hoh River above Morgan’s Crossing
Figure 3. The graphs show the period in which run size and escapement of wild steelhead have declined in the (a.) Hoh River, (b.) Queets River, and (c.) Quillayute River (1980-2014). The dashed lines indicate the average trend of the decline, with steeper lines indicating a steeper decline. The Hoh and Queets River run size and escapements have declined since 1980, while the Quillayute run size increased from 1980-1984 (not shown in graph) and has declined since 1985. Solid black line represents the escapement goal for each river.