PAT NEAL’S WILDLIFE: Digging up the oldest fishing law

THANK YOU FOR reading this.

Sometimes I think if you didn’t read this, no one would.

But you do. I get mail from faraway places — like Oregon — asking:

“If you dislike the birds so much, why do you watch them?”

All I have ever tried to do as a weekly wilderness gossip columnist was to share my love of the silence of nature.

Silence may be the rarest thing on Earth.

Often instead of basking in the reverie of the silence of the wilderness, I am forced to endure the mating and nest making rigmarole of some river pest, like the dipper.

It’s a drab little river bird that never stops bouncing.

It could give you a nervous twitch if you watched it very long.

But I never knew it ate salmon.

A keen-eyed Alaskan reader set me straight on that one.

Apparently a pair of dippers ate an estimated 2,000 baby chum salmon a month at the spillway of the Neets Bay fish hatchery near Craig in the 49th state.

We’ll have to add the dipper to the list of hundreds of species flora and fauna that are salmon-dependent.

Even the trees of the rain forest were, until recent times, fertilized with the carcasses of salmon that were spread through the woods by bears and high water.

Eliminating the salmon runs has led to a collapse of ecosystems.

The dipper could be an indicator species like the canary in the coal mine.

If the canary dies, you know the air is bad. If the dippers go away, it means the river is dead.

We like to study the problem.

A disturbed reader from Montana asked: “Won’t electro-shocking, shaving and netting the marmots endanger them?”

It sure will, but that’s no excuse to not study them. These same survey methods have been used for years on fish.

Electro-shocking is an evil practice of running an electric current into the water to immobilize fish so you can count them.

My fancy friends at the Dungeness Hatchery used electro-shocking to gather a captive brood stock to restore the spring chinook back in the SSRq90s — until they found out 40 percent of the chinook smolts captured in this manner developed spinal abnormalities.

Electro-shocking larger fish is even worse, since they receive more current.

Electro-shocking fish has been outlawed in civilized countries like Montana.

It is still legal here.

There was even a picture of this brutal technique in action on Page 13 of this year’s Washington fishing law booklet.

Still, electro-shocking only kills, maims and injures fish and their eggs buried in the gravel.

Another survey weapon in the biologist’s arsenal, the smolt trap, can choke off an entire stream.

Smolt traps catch young salmon migrating downstream out to sea.

It can be a valid scientific method for gathering survival data, but not if it blocks the whole stream.

Blocking a salmon stream is illegal.

It was the very first fishing law ever put on the books, more than 800 years ago by Richard the Lionheart.

His reign was described as an “orgy of medieval savagery,” but he didn’t block a salmon stream.

In the spring, the steelhead migrate upriver.

They like to spawn in the small side steams, running as far up as they can at night.

The sea-run cutthroat swim with the steelhead, as far as they can in the high water, to spend the summer deep in the rain forest.

Not if the creek is blocked by a smolt trap.

Meanwhile, the poor smolts caught in the traps are in danger of floods, predators and rough handling.

Somewhere Richard the Lionheart is rolling over in his grave.


Pat Neal is a North Olympic Peninsula fishing guide and humorist whose column appears every Wednesday.

Pat can be reached at 360-683-9867 or [email protected]

The “Pat Neal WildLife Show” is on radio KSQM 91.5 FM ( at 9 a.m. Saturdays, repeated at 6 p.m. Tuesdays.

Pat’s latest book, WildLife Volume 2, The Mountain Pond, has been placed on the Barnes & Noble Rising Star Special Collection at, an online boutique, through April.

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