By Matt Schubert
PDN Outdoors Columnist
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For a number of anglers, it isn't even a debate when it comes to wild steelhead.
The answer is toss the fish back every time.
Of course, creel checks provided by the state Department of Fish and Wildlife each week attest to the fact that plenty of steelheaders disagree.
Last week alone (Feb. 16-22), state officials counted 47 native steelhead caught and kept by recreational anglers on the Calawah, Quillayute/Bogachiel, Sol Duc and Hoh rivers.
So since the state allows retention of one wild steelhead per year from any of 11 rivers statewide (10 on the North Olympic Peninsula), and tribal gillnet fisheries harvest thousands each year, the issue is one of supposed moral responsibility.
Puget Sound steelhead are listed as "threatened" under the Endangered Species Act, and even the "healthy" rivers that allow retention sometime struggle to meet escapement goals.
The glacial-fed Hoh in particular failed to reach escapement at least three times this decade.
As a result, an accomplishment which might have been widely celebrated decades ago -- the landing of a record-breaking 29.5-pound wild steelhead on the Hoh last week -- is now derided by many steelheaders.
A fish that big and rare should be thrown back, conservationists argue, so that its genetics live on.
When the man who caught it didn't, an explosive reaction on Internet message boards followed, further bringing to light a contentious debate on Peninsula rivers.
Port Hadlock resident Peter Harrison, a native of England, is used to having the moral high ground when it comes to such matters.
Considered a leading expert on seabirds -- his out-of-print book, Seabirds, An Identification Guide, currently fetches $185.45 on Amazon.com -- Harrison has been an active conservationist for many years.
Harrison claims to have raised nearly $1 million for birding conservation efforts in his lifetime, usually by auctioning off his own wildlife paintings.
The project he is currently involved in, BirdLife's Save the Albatross Campaign, has received contributions of nearly $250,000 because of his work, according to an article posted on Travelblog.zeco.com last August.
The 62-year-old said he was looking to enjoy his surroundings as much as anything when he visited the Hoh last Friday with his wife, Shirley Metz, and his 15-foot spey rod.
"It's not about catching fish, it's about being out in places where fish live," Harrison said.
"Fly fishermen, I don't think we do it necessarily to catch fish. If that happens, it's a bonus. I'd rather be casting well than fishing well."
Harrison has done his fair share of both in his lifetime.
Having led numerous expeditions throughout the world as co-founder and partner of Seattle-based Zegrahm Expeditions, Harrison has caught thousands of fish from all sorts of rivers.
Yet before last Friday, he had never landed a steelhead on the Hoh in 10 years of trying.
"I've always thought one day I was going to get something," Harrison said.
What he got, one witness said at Olympic Sporting Goods in Forks, was "the fish of a 1,000 lifetimes."
Almost every fly angler has a standby when nothing else seems to work.
Harrison's is a fly of his own creation -- a pink bunny tail on a No. 2 hook lovingly referred to as EP-1 (short for English Pete One, after his handle).
It was still in his box when he suffered the frustration of hooking a steelhead only too see it pop out of the water, do a backflip, and break free of his line.
Sitting on the banks of the Hoh afterward, a herd of elk grazing under sunny blue skies in a nearby pasture, he wondered to himself, "Do I have to wait anther 10 years for another fish?"
Running out of options, he tied on his trusty EP-1 and tossed it into the same hole he waded by an hour ago.
"I put it out there, and second cast, bang." Harrison said.
"I'll never forget that -- the rod just bent.
"My reel was screaming.
"[The fish] was on it's way to Alaska, and I was standing the middle of the river with nowhere to go.
"I just said to myself, 'Don't panic.'"
Harrison estimated he battled the fish for 45 minutes as it made run after run down river.
"I got to the backing six or seven times," Harrison said.
"I'm up to my chest [in water].
"I'm standing there, my wife is hollering at me.
"I'm asking her help to try to find a way to get to the bank.
"No sooner than I got to the bank that this thing exploded into the air.
"I'm looking and I'm thinking, 'This thing may be four feet long.'
"I was shaking.
"It was at that point that my wife started giving my instructions on how to land the fish.
"I turned to her and said, 'Sweetheart, just this once don't tell me what to do.
"'If I lose this fish I want it to be my fault.'"
Of course, he didn't lose the mammoth fish.
He landed it within minutes of backing his way onto the bank with the help of his wife.
The fly was flossed perfectly in the corner of its mouth.
SDLqMy whole body was trembling, one just from the fight itself, but looking at the fish, it was also absolute disbelief [at the size of the fish]," Harrison said.
"I was fumbling for a tape measure. I just couldn't believe it."
It was at this point that Harrison said he noticed it was bleeding from its gills.
"It didn't look like it was going to survive," he said.
"I thought if you're ever going to take one, this is probably the one you are going to take.
"So with a heavy heart, I bonked it over the head once and took it."
"Please," he told me, "say that I've never taken a fish from a river anywhere in the continental United States,"
The fish measured 44 inches in length, with a girth of 23.5 inches, according to Harrison.
A pair of spring-loaded scales on hand ¬-- fishing guides Mike Zavadlov, Jim Kerr and Brett Lowe all came on the scene after the fish was caught -- weighed the fish at as much as 32 pounds.
By the time Harrison got it to an accredited scale at Key City Fish Company the next day, it weighed in at 29.5 pounds.
This would make it the largest rainbow trout (steelhead are sea-run rainbows) caught on a fly rod with eight-kilogram (17.6-pound) tippet ever submitted to the International Game Fish Association.
The current eight-kilogram tippet record is a 28-pound rainbow caught by Chuck Stephens in the Skeena River in British Columbia in 1985.
The largest ever submitted, regardless of tippet size, is a 30-pound, 15-ounce rainbow taken from the Ruhr River in Germany in 1999.
"I've never seen one landed by a fly fisherman quite that big," Kerr said.
"In fairness, it would be important to stress that there have unquestionably been bigger steelhead caught on fly rods, but nobody kills them so the IGFA doesn't recognize it."
Several anglers witnessed the landing of a 45-inch-long steelhead on the Sol Duc years ago, according to Kerr.
Yet that fish was thrown back, a practice subscribed to by many anglers.
Olympic Peninsula Guides Association President Bob Ball is one of several guides that doesn't allow wild steelhead retention on his boat.
And he feels just as strongly as the hordes of bloggers on his Web site's message board (piscatorialpursuits.com) who have been decrying Harrison's decision.
"It should have gone back in the river," Ball said.
"The Hoh has failed to meet escapement over 50 percent of the time over the last decade, and yet we're still allowing a harvest fishery on the tribal end as well as on the sports end.
"Why we still allow retention there boggles my mind."
When the state tried to ban wild retention several years ago, some city officials in Forks lobbied hard to keep wild steelhead retention, claiming it would hurt West End tourism.
Yet Ball and other members of the Wild Steelhead Coalition were on the other side of the issue, having fought to end native retention in the past.
Regardless of the law, Ball believes that part of the onus falls on individual anglers to do the "right thing."
"Just because something is legal doesn't necessarily mean it's the right thing to do," he said.
For his part, Harrison is aware of the controversy, and in an e-mail sent to yours truly following a telephone interview, explained some feelings over his actions.
"I have bittersweet emotions, the elation of hooking a giant fish and beaching it but then the trauma and stress of actually killing a fish," he wrote.
"I am still very upset at that part.
"I did not do it lightly. Emotionally I am scarred.
"I still have a knot in my stomach over that part of the incident.
"This calls me to ask the question: Isn't it time that all wild steelhead be released?"
As his own actions show, however, that's easier said than done.
In the words of West End outdoors fixture Bob Gooding:
"When you catch one that big, let me know when you put it back."
Matt Schubert is the outdoors and sports columnist for the Peninsula Daily News. His column appears on Thursdays and Fridays. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.