PAT NEAL: Steelhead fishing’s last bastion gasping

I KNEW IT was the end when a low-holing, fly-flogging fishing guide floated past on the river and said, “We’re going to get rid of some fishing guides.”

Something told me I would be the first to go.

Allow me to explain.

What is a low-holer?

Imagine you are headed to a big sale at the mall.

There is only one parking space left.

Just as you are going to pull into it, someone cuts in front of you and takes the parking spot.

It can be just like on the river.

You’re fishing a hole, and just as you are about to get a bite, a boat cuts in below you, flogging the water with 12-foot poles and fluorescent line.

Fly-fishing is an art.

Crowding fellow anglers off the water is not.

Unfortunately, it is a common practice among some fishing guides who think they not only own the river but also the boat ramp and the road leading to it.

Lately, the problem seems to be getting worse.

Scientists have conducted experiments demonstrating how overcrowding rats into a diminishing space can lead to antisocial behavior.

The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife has conducted a similar experiment with fishing guides by shutting down steelhead fishing in most of the rest of the state — even for catch-and-release fishing — while leaving the streams of the North Olympic Peninsula open.

This is an experiment in which the scientists are out to lunch and the rats are running amok.

Fishing guides are like the canary in a coal mine.

If the canary dies, you know the mine is unhealthy.

In Washington, if the canary can’t survive, we blame the canary for the problem and get rid of it.

It seems the legislators have finally realized the Peninsula is the last best place for trophy steelhead now that we have wiped them out in the rest of the state.

This was not always the case.

The state-record winter-run steelhead came from the Lewis River.

The state-record summer steelhead came from the Snake River.

In between, there were many rivers that once offered the best trophy steelhead fishing in Washington.

What happened to those streams?

They were subjected to a gross overharvest by myriad sport fishermen and a commercial gillnet fishery of the treaty tribes without a corresponding mitigation of fish being put back in the water.

Senate Bill 5302 is a new law proposed by 24th District state Sen. Kevin Van De Wege of Sequim [Jan. 23 Peninsula Daily News] to make fishing guides purchase a limited number of “tags” to fish on our rivers.

The money would be used to protect steelhead, whatever that means.

We have already spent millions trying to restore fish with no appreciable gains in populations.

The restoration industry makes no claims that it will restore fish.

They restore restoration jobs while operating under the disclaimer that they merely create the conditions fish might return to someday, then they move on to the next grant proposal.

Our current restoration efforts are like a farmer plowing a field but not planting anything in it.

The farmer has created conditions in the field where a crop might grow someday if a seed happens to fall in it.

There is no surprise that the fish continue to be threatened or endangered no matter how much money we spend.

Shouldn’t the people of Washington expect a return on the millions invested in restoration projects?

Couldn’t we use these funds to support proven restoration methods like using native brood stock to restore native fish?

No, we’ll just get rid of the fishing guides.

I think it’s the least we can do.


Pat Neal is a fishing guide and “wilderness gossip columnist” whose column appears here every Wednesday.

He can be reached at 360-683-9867 or by email via patneal [email protected].

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