By Sean Gallagher
The wipers strained as sheets of rainwater slammed the windshield. It sounded as if one thousand marbles were bouncing off the roof—we swerved and just missed another puddle. If Larry and I turn around now we have the perfect excuse, I thought.
Our destination on this dark, blustery, Saturday morning in November was the Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission hearing in Olympia. We planned to testify on proposed rule changes that could have a positive influence over North Coast wild steelhead populations. Larry Burnstad, a retired fisheries and wetlands habitat consultant and biologist, has spent the better part of his career advocating for wild salmonids.
We plodded on.
Gazing out the window thoughts continued racing through my head. It was beginning to feel like Déjà Vu.
“Decades earlier I found myself (along with others) in this same position… It was brutal. Angry emotions flared and often ruled.”
Decades earlier I found myself (along with others) in this same position: testifying in support of rules to protect wild steelhead. It was brutal. Angry emotions flared and often ruled.
“If we can’t kill native steelhead then close the damn rivers,” was often the call.
At some meetings people who knew us, fellow anglers, pointed fingers. We were called “anti sportsmen,” a “special interest group,” or referred to as “those guys!” Name-calling was not uncommon, but at least is was to your face. That was before the internet.
Today on the side of the resource stand many articulate, well informed, and well-intentioned anglers who share their thoughts online. They have done their homework, read the studies, examined the charts, and have written respectively about—and with reverence for—wild steelhead. They value wild fish and understand their plight, and the importance for change. And they know how this story can end. CLOSED TO FISHING!
Yet there is still some opposition to mandatory release, mostly petty name calling. It’s a constant reminder that change doesn’t come easy. “Anti-fish zealots, wild fish zealot, fringe group, anti-fish knuckleheads, anti-hatchery jerk asses, elitists,and my favorite, “clown kronie” (crony). Is that a lure? All these names have been used in response to these concerned anglers’ opinions posted on the internet.
I’m disappointed—is this all you’ve got?
My apprehension continued as the room began to fill. At first it was mostly strangers, both men and women, but what struck me most was how young many of them were. Then came the familiar faces. Rich Simms from the Wild Steelhead Coalition on my right, Rob Masonis from T.U. sat a few chairs away along side John McMillan, another strong advocate for wild steelhead and Science Director for Trout Unlimited’s Wild Steelhead Initiative. It was standing room only when I picked out Tom Pero from Wild River Press standing next to Kate Holiday across the room. Then out of the storm walked a dapper gentleman sporting a full-length western duster and flat cap. It was retired steelhead fly-fishing guide John Farrar, arguably the most revered guide in Washington state.
Guilt crept in as I thought about the distance he had just traveled, all by himself. It was definitely farther than me. And he was smiling.
This again took me back to those acrimonious commission hearings of the past. John was consistently advocating for wild steelhead. He was also fun to listen to and took certain liberties (roundabouts) to get his message across. I smiled, wondering how he was going to do it this time in only three minutes. He didn’t disappoint me. Environmental filmmaker Shane Anderson made his way to the microphone as I picked out others in the crowd.
“The overwhelming majority were in favor of total catch and release of all wild steelhead.”
Finally at ease I sat back comfortably and listened. The overwhelming majority were in favor of total catch and release of all wild steelhead. There was very good support for a barbless hook rule along with bait restrictions. And there was even some nice discussion about the proposed rule to limit fishing from a floating device (boats for access only) on a certain sections of river.
Most testified in support, some varied the location. People spoke from all sides of the issues, yet what impressed me was how civil they all were. I smiled and looked around the room. These must be my “cronies,” I thought. Wild fish zealot? I’ll gladly wear that badge. Much thanks to Trout Unlimited, the Wild Steelhead Coalition and Wild Steelheaders United.
I realize that the fish are up against the wall. We now have early or complete river closers throughout the entire Puget Sound Region. Sometimes it seems the Olympic Peninsula is our last hope. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Skagit River steelhead have met or exceeded escapement goals the last few years. These proposed OP rules, if enacted, may seem only a small step, but it is a step in the right direction. It is the launching pad for wild fish recovery throughout the State of Washington. Support is growing. Our message is being heard. We have turned the corner. Now it is important to remain vigilant and continue forward. As anglers we all have the responsibility to become better informed both scientifically and culturally.
So was it “Déjà Vu”?
I no longer think so.