By Bill Herzog
Back in 1969, the New York Mets made baseball history. The “Amazin’ Mets,” as they came to be known, a team that had been dropped in the toilet like a three day old dead goldfish by most baseball experts, came from nowhere to shock the country and win the World Series that year.
The Mets had been famously awful losing an average of 108 games a season over the previous six years. Yet after mid-season, at the point when the Mets so often started their “summer fade,” they somehow kept winning. Fans gathered around their rally cry of “Ya Gotta Believe” and ran with it through improbable victory after victory in the playoffs and World Series.
What do the 1969 Mets have to do with steelhead and fishing? Well, they are an analogy of what could be—that is, our winter run of steelhead in 2017/2018.
Last winter/early spring was certainly not one for the record books. In reality, coastal runs of wild steelhead have been in gradual decline for gosh knows how many years now. We really need something to believe in this upcoming season, fellow anglers. And the historical record gives us hope that, in steelhead fishing as in sports, anything is possible.
Consider the Skeena River in 1998. The yearly test fishery at the Tyee Pool on the lower Skeena in August tells the tale of how many fish are returning to that massive system. In that year sockeye numbers were so low the commercial fishery at the mouth was closed. Steelhead numbers- at the time- were also below average. However, zero netting and a late push by a majority of steelhead in the summer run combined to produce an “amazin’” result: the largest run of summer steelhead in 30 years.
That same year the Sustut, Babine, Kispoix, Bulkley and other rivers saw summer steelhead numbers and fishing quality that no one, not even the old rubber-wadered vets, had ever experienced. The fall of 1986 saw one of the greatest summer runs ever of wild steelhead returning to the Skeena, and it was beyond good, but still a far cry from 1998. I was there in October. I could give numbers from my group but it was just too surreal to relate. Just know I have never landed that many steelhead in a week before, or since. That fall of 1998 was gold plated unique. No one could believe it happened. Wasn’t supposed to, no way. But it did.
Consider also the Methow River in Central Washington. One of the most visually succulent steelhead streams in Washington, or any place for that matter, the Methow returns an average of 6-7,000 steelhead each fall. When fish counts at Wells Dam say there are enough steelhead, WDFW opens the river for mandatory hatchery retention. There are flawless wild fish in the Methow that look like Kispiox steelhead. But the runs slipped each year in the mid 80s until this fishery was closed in 1987. The future of steelheading in the Methow appeared to be a grim one. In 1995 the run hit bottom—only 945 steelhead returned, and steelhead numbers rose only slightly through 1999. After thirteen years of closure, the edge of the century welcomed boom times. In 2000, 6,000-plus steelhead returned and the Methow was re-opened. In 2001 17,500 steelhead came back, the most since 1985.
And it just got better. 2002 to 2008 saw 7-9,000 returns a year, and we began to count on the Methow to provide great fishing and good numbers. The fast fishing did not go unnoticed, pressure grew exponentially every fall, but even with so many more anglers the experience was still giggle-inducing. Then we got three years of surreal numbers—25,000 in 2009, 12,700 in 2010 and 12,000 in 2011. Wasn’t supposed to happen, no way. But it did.
The best of times were here to stay…or were they? From 2012 to 2015 saw 9,000 steelhead on average, then in 2016 the bottom fell out. Only 4,800 fish, not enough for a season. A closed river was the result.
Which brings us to this year’s poor numbers and another closure. We understand. We have to protect our wild steelhead.
It seems a given in this brave new world that every steelhead forecast for upcoming seasons will be as uplifting as a blind orphan’s puppy being run over by a truck. Black speech like “possible closures,” “below average,” falling numbers,” “not making escapement,” etc., seems to find its way into every preseason steelheading gala. My dad used to tell me, “We’ll see,” whenever I asked if we could go fishing this upcoming weekend. I knew after several summers of mandatory Saturday yard work that “We’ll see” meant I don’t want to upset you right now in front of the neighbors by saying no. When our fisheries managers give us the old “We’ll see” about run size, I know right where that’s going.
Except that, sometimes, we are pleasantly surprised at the size of the portions on the fishing menu we are served.
Steelheading has always been an exercise of hope. As we approach a new winter season, especially after a year of poor returns, we steelheaders must have faith that the unfathomable, the unimaginable, can happen. Some recent developments support this optimism. The sterile giant mass of the warm blob in the North Pacific is gone, replaced by colder, fish-food loaded water. Some of our Puget Sound wild steelhead rivers have roared back from just a few hundred returns per year to thousands, the best results since the late 80s.
There are signs of hope for the future of steelhead fishing. And thanks to those Amazin’ Mets in 1969, we know that even the craziest dreams can come true. Ya gotta believe.