A great question… when still-open rivers overlap the worst summer steelhead run in history, what do you do?
Danny Bravo plays a Snake River hatchery steelhead across from Heller Bar.
It was impossible to not hear the admonishments of so many open division, top of the list steelhead anglers, guides and writers bull-horned at the ones that decided to go and fish for upper Columbia steelhead, regardless of the suggestion to take a year off. Give the fish we love a break. It's no longer about us anglers or own interests.
I hear you. As loud and clear as an Iron Maiden concert, front row. It makes rational sense. But so does showing up and participating in the fishery. The lowest return since stats were kept (since 1938) through Bonneville Dam peaked just over 70k for upper Columbia summer steelhead. Forty-one thousand over Lower Granite Dam (last dam on the lower Snake) divided into the Clearwater, the Snake, Salmon, Grande Ronde and Imnaha rivers, eleven thousand of them wild fish. Sounds like a lot compared to the total numbers of wild steelhead from every other river (total) in the state, but when these rivers were getting back just over one hundred thousand on average for the previous ten years, alarm bells are ringing.
We must protect the last remaining wild summer steelhead. But, we have paid for hatchery steelhead and the right to fish for them. We have to remove them, by law, from rivers to help protect wild steelhead. What in the name of freshly mowed hell do we do?
My favorite comedian, Dave Chapelle, said this the other day, “You will always be criticized for doing something, and you will always be criticized for doing nothing.” This is the Catch 22 for anglers who still want to participate in the summer steelhead fishery, regardless of low numbers.
We steelheaders are the stewards of the river. We see what is happening in real time, not behind a desk. Here is a number for all of us in Washington to chew on- there have been over 70 rivers and streams closed since the mid-70s to steelhead fishing. The runs, either winter or summer, in most of these places have diminished to the point of certain closure, but know that some of them had been closed because the WDFW no longer had planted those streams due to low angler participation. Returned “punch cards” and catch record cards showed so few fish reported plants were discontinued in those rivers and then shut down by the state.
A perfect late autumn day on the Snake River below Heller Bar.
Add poor management, like decades of allowing legal killing of wild fish and one could see why so many of the rivers old timers pine for are no longer open.
If we stop fishing—even though it is a noble and probably the correct thing to do—we are being watched, fellow steel-headers. If we simply stop going during these times of low returns the state will take notice, stop or severely reduce steel-head plants. With no guides, hotels, tackle companies, etc. to make noise for needing open rivers, the places we love to fish in the fall will quietly go away like so many in the recent past. We have to show up, for the love of the places we don’t want to lose.
There are ways to fish and be light on the population.
Figure one out of five is wild. So, with a higher percentage of hatchery to wild of the steelhead you encounter are meant to be caught, this is a figure we can deal with. Let us never forget that the only reason these rivers are open at all is due to hatchery augmentation. Without hatchery summer steelhead, we are not fishing ANYWHERE. Theoretically, the rivers are open to harvest and remove hatchery steelhead so they do not (possibly) inter breed with wild fish. No fishing, the hatchery fish get a free ride, gene pools get diluted, on we go…we must fish.
They may be 300 plus miles from the ocean, but Grande Ronde summer steelhead stay in amazing condition.
Also, we must factor in steelheaders “of a certain age.” I know many of them—I’m in the club—that can count their remaining steelhead seasons on one hand, maybe add a few fingers. These older folks are not going to pass on a precious season when they can fish. The older folks I spoke with on the river last fall would still go fishing if there were not one steelhead to be had. While taking a year (years) off to better the floundering runs is admirable, you aren’t selling that concept to an older veteran angler.
To Not To Fish…
From every media outlet, the cries of “leave them alone” this past fall season on the upper Columbia summer steelhead tributaries were heard across the Fourth Corner. Oregon stepped up first, closing the most popular summer steel-head fisheries on the south border of the Columbia—the wonderful Deschutes and the autumn jewel just east, the John Day. Washington closed smaller rivers like the Walla Walla, Touchet and Tucannon. Many anglers who love their summer runs more than their next breath could not in good conscience fish over such low numbers. Fly anglers were “Spey shaming” their ilk who chose to fish. Many guides did not book days.
I chose to fish, as did quite a few of my steelheading crew. I know, as I stood next to my drift boat on the banks of the Snake this last fall, there was always a twinge of guilt that really never went away as I fished. The severity of the situation cannot be overlooked and there was a grating conflict between my passion to fish and my undying care for the steelhead.
A 1/4 oz. brass BC Steel is always first choice when sweeping the wide edges and tailouts of the massive Snake River.
Keep looking at the numbers of returning steelhead, not just to the Columbia and its tributaries. If we begin self-boycotts to not fish over depleted runs, then we must bring a piece of candy to everyone in the classroom of the West Coast steelheader. We stopped fishing in Puget Sound rivers almost 30 years ago when the runs began to wane. You may not be able to fish coastal rivers this March and April, if at all this winter/spring due to all the streams not meeting their escapement goals for God knows how many years now. How about the “bullet proof” Skeena being closed early due to the lowest runs in history? Steelhead are in peril up and down the coast, nor just in the Columbia. Do we stop going to the OP this winter, even if it’s open, to prevent additional damage to the wild fish to make ourselves feel better? The factors contributing to flat line recovery numbers and slow decline are mostly out of the anglers’ hands.
So…What Do We Do?
I can tell you what was the end result of pairing dirt floor numbers with keeping a clear conscience. Angler participation was well below “normal” for the Snake and lower Grande Ronde. Only a few large jet boats that usually crowd the water around the mouth of the Ronde on the big Snake were there during end of October/early November, prime time. Granted, due to the regulation this last year of one hatchery steelhead per day and you must stop fishing after harvesting that fish, it was a tough sell for a guide to charge $250 a head to tell the guy he’s done after one bite. I did see the average number of fly swingers out there, and due to lower river closures/light angler pressure most of the fish got a free ride to the upper Snake and Grande Ronde. Most anglers reported average to fairly good fishing due to less pressure. Go figure.
My answer is somewhere down the middle, leaning slightly “to fish.” My personal solution to satisfy the ultra-conservative side and not to bother them and to appease the “my right to fish dammit” wing was to limit our encounters to four steelhead per day, for the boat (2 people). Landed or not, once the boat got to 4, scenic row to the take-out. Most days we never even got to four, but real steelheaders know that if you gave them four bites a day when steelhead fishing, we would all take that and run with it.
The author with a perfect wild Snake River steelhead that greased a swung hot pink marabou.
I also like to believe that, even though popular unenlightened opinion says otherwise, our people in charge of our rivers and making regulations have at least a soft-focus clue on what rivers to leave open versus closure. The fact the Snake, Salmon, Clearwater and Grande Ronde were kept open around so many other closures speaks volumes. Those in the ivory towers want us to fish.
Going back to the one in five chance for a wild fish encounter, if you limit your hookups to four, and stop fishing once you have landed and killed one hatchery steel-head, chances are quite good your impact as an angler are limited to the point of near zero “damage” to the wild population. Even though bait is legal in the Snake/Clearwater/upper Grande Ronde, choosing not to use it prevents “gargle” hook ups, even with barbless hooks.
No bait, no barbs, limit encounters to four. Limit your days on the water. Try it. But go fishing! Never give up on any fishery. There will always be ways to restrict our encounters and still be able to fish and protect what we sure as hell never want to give up. Its up to the ones in charge at the capitol to see our interest and make regulations to keep our remaining steel-head fisheries open. Remember—there are always regulations we may put into effect that will allow a fishery. Most of us may not like them, but fishing under restrictions is far better than not fishing for steelhead at all. Choosing to not fish this year is a noble gesture, as less angler pressure is never a bad thing for hurting steelhead populations. If that is your choice, bravo…you do you, man. If you choose not to fish, or to show up and fish, you are right either way. All good.
A perfect late autumn day on the Snake River below Heller Bar.
However, if we quit showing up during our favorite season in our favorite places for our favorite fish until populations rebound, we may never (long, deep breath) fish for steelhead again in an all-too near future. We might as well turn in our graphite rods for graphite golf clubs.
If we quit…they quit. And I am not (bleeping) golfing.
EDITORS NOTE: LET'S UPDATE THIS WITH SOMETHING POSITIVE. 2023 RUN FORECASTS ARE HIGHER THAN 2022. RAINFALL AND SNOW PACKS ARE ABOVE AVERAGE ON THE ENTIRE WEST COAST AND IN SOME PLACES WAY ABOVE!