PAT NEAL: A short history of steelhead fishing

The first historic reference of a steelhead came on March 16, 1806, when Lewis and Clark bought a “salmon trout” from the Indians. That was a steelhead.

Captain Lewis said that the salmon trout could not be caught on a hook — an observation that modern-day anglers, who refer to steelhead as “the fish of a thousand casts,” might agree with.

Chis Morgenroth, a homesteader on the upper Bogachiel River in the mid-1890s, liked to ride his horse out in the middle of the river, cast downstream, hook a steelhead and wrap the line around the saddlehorn to play it to shore.

My friend Elsa Schmidt, who grew up on a homestead on the upper Hoh River in the 1920s, told me they never fished for steelhead with hooks. They used pitchforks — except for the time she was running wild with the loggers, fishing with dynamite on the Clearwater River, but that’s another story.

With the coming of the industrial age, canneries were built on our rivers with an insatiable appetite for fish. Our runs of salmon and steelhead were considered as inexhaustible as our timber at the time. But that was just the beginning.

With the coming of the post-war era, the demand for steelhead increased.

In the winter of 1972-73, we caught 4,520 steelhead in the Bogachiel and 6,017 in the Humptulips. Fishing was good. Too good to last. The 1974 Boldt Decision restored the Tribes’ right to half the harvestable fish. This started a fish war, where each side tried to catch the last fish.

Now the National Marine Fisheries Service is taking public comment on declaring the Olympic Peninsula steelhead an endangered species. This should come as no surprise.

Olympic Peninsula rivers have industrial, commercial gill net and crowded sport fisheries with no corresponding mitigation with proven, native steelhead brood stock hatchery programs.

Meanwhile, the state has routinely closed the rest of Washington to steelhead fishing, while leaving the Olympic Peninsula rivers open. This resulted in an excessive amount of sport-angling pressure on rivers that were already over-fished.

Efforts to restore the steelhead mirror the restoration of the threatened/endangered bull trout, a species that is not threatened or endangered or even a trout. It is a char which, on any given day, is the most abundant fish there is on the rivers it inhabits on the Olympic Peninsula. It was never endangered here, but it sounded good to the biologists.

Declaring steelhead an endangered species is a bureaucratic form of monetized extinction that opens the flood gates of federal funding, where Endangered Species Act dollars fall like manna from heaven to the salmon restoration industry. Infamous for fraud, waste and incompetence, they spend millions building log jams, spraying herbicides and buying property from “willing sellers,” who can be made “willing” by the recently enacted Landowner Immunity Statute that makes salmon restoration projects immune from any financial damages they cause to private property.

With gratuitous research, make-work projects and self-promotion in the guise of “public education,” the salmon restoration industry has no financial or performance audits or a track record of restoring fish. They operate under the disclaimer that they are only creating habitat the fish might come back to someday — ignoring the fact that there are threatened/endangered fish in the pristine habitat of Olympic National Park.

While declaring the Olympic Peninsula steelhead an Endangered Species will be a windfall profit for the restoration industry, it’s liable to do little for steelhead.

As Einstein said, repeating the same failed experiment is the definition of insanity.

Here in Washington, we call it fisheries management.


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

He can be reached at 360-683-9867 or by email via