PAT NEAL: Requiem for a river

Spring is a time of hope on the river.

The salmon eggs that survived the winter floods are getting ready to hatch when the weather gets warmer. The steelhead eggs are freshly laid in their beds, secure in the knowledge the floods of winter are over.

The river has settled down for the summer, when another run of steelhead will emerge from the gravel.

This is the time for the return of the spring chinook. These were known as “the first salmon.”

The first salmon ceremony was a celebration of the salmon practiced by Native people throughout the range of the salmon. Until the salmon were gone.

A few years back, we held a First Salmon Ceremony on the Hoh River. Or tried to.

There were no salmon.

The state would not allow us to catch even a hatchery salmon. The celebration was renamed the No Salmon Ceremony.

It was more like a requiem — a requiem for a river — where friends came to remember a dead friend.

Someone had sense enough to record the testimony of some first-hand eyewitnesses to the death of the Hoh River, the last best river in America.

Daryle “Jake” Jacobsen started fishing the Hoh when he was a young man up until the time of his passing on Easter Sunday of 2019.

He began guiding on the Hoh in 1973, catching 50-pound chinook and 20-pound steelhead for generations of anglers.

Then, Jake watched the river die.

He said the fish were like a pie. The more people you have, the smaller the piece everyone gets. The fishing pressure increased incrementally as the state shut down fishing elsewhere in Washington and directed everyone to fish for steelhead on the rivers of the Olympic Peninsula.

Jake said everyone is going to have to give up something to save the river.

Something such as the late season that fishes the steelhead all the way into April.

He said you can’t just plant the river like a garden and expect it to grow back in a year. He did not want a hatchery on the Hoh. Because it would draw too many crowds. Jake could see the effects that 50 years of planting hatchery fish on the Hoh River had on the natives.

Jake could look at the so-called natives we caught lately and point out their narrow backs and skinny tails that marked the dilution of the fishery into feral mongrels of hatchery and wild stocks.

Jake proposed hatch boxes full of fertilized native salmon and steelhead eggs placed in creeks running into the Hoh River.

It’s been done before.

In the 1960s, Missy Barlow of Oil City on the Lower Hoh had a 4-H group plant hatch boxes in creeks running into the river. They raised shoals of fish.

In 1981 and 1990, Jake proposed a one-week-per-month closure of the Hoh River to Tribal and sport fishing to allow fish to get upstream.

This was historically practiced in the Native American fisheries.

These measures were ignored.

For reasons known only to the co-managers of the Hoh River, placing remote hatch boxes in creeks is not allowed. Periodic, in-season fishing closures are not even being considered. Instead, we are building log jams to bring the fish back. A practice that has not worked anywhere.

Jake said that he didn’t expect to see the salmon restored on the Hoh River in his lifetime.

Will the Hoh River be restored in anyone’s life time? Doubtful.

We have to change the way we manage fish populations.

Like Jake said, the way we are currently co-managing the Hoh River, there is no management at all.


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 [email protected].

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