PAT NEAL: The mysteries of steelhead season

IT WAS ANOTHER tough week in the news, when the state Department of Fish and Wildlife decided to end steelhead fishing on many of our rivers even before the steelhead season opened — ending an angling tradition that stretches back through the mists of time as long as we can remember.

If you don’t know what a steelhead is, you are probably not from around here.

Steelhead are a rainbow trout that migrate out to the ocean then return to the rivers where they were born much like the salmon.

Unlike the salmon, steelhead do not die after they spawn.

In fact, one female steelhead in the Hoh River was found to have spawned six times based upon an analysis of her scales, which, much like the rings of a tree, can document the life of the fish.

The fact that steelhead are able to spawn multiple times has made them much harder to eradicate from the ecosystem than our salmon, which can only spawn once.

Never fear. Using the best available science, coupled with best available Disney movies, the co-managers of this precious resource have been working tirelessly to transform this magnificent fish from a public resource we could all enjoy into an endangered species.

Through the miracle of the Endangered Species Act, it is hoped that millions of federal dollars will soon become available to study the problem. Meanwhile, just about all we have left of our steelhead culture and traditions have become a distant memory.

Nobody who ever caught a steelhead will forget their first one.

This is my story.

We were camping in the rainforest sometime in the last century. It was raining. And not just a sprinkle. It was pounding on our tent like a thousand little hammers. However, we had a wood stove in the tent, so it was warm but a little moist. Unfortunately, we had forgotten a ground sheet and since we were camping in a meadow, the floor was a wet patch of grass. Once the turf warmed up inside the tent, every bug in the country woke up and sprang out of hibernation ready for a meal.

Outside, flakes of snow mixed with rain. Inside, it was mosquito season as hundreds of bugs filled the tent like a cloud of misery. Somehow, we survived until morning and it was time to fish. We did not catch a thing, but we saw a guy walking along the river carrying a fish as long as his leg.

Once I caught a steelhead, I was hooked.

Steelhead are not for eating anymore. According to the government, steelhead are now so rare that some rivers, like the Queets, have been shut down to even catch-and-release fishing — causing questions to be asked.

Isn’t the Queets River, protected almost its entire length within Olympic National Park, the most pristine environment this side of Alaska? If the steelhead have become so rare in the Queets, is there something besides the habitat endangering our fish? And isn’t the Queets still open to tribal gillnetting?

The answer to all these questions is yes. The tribes have a treaty right to fish.

Using native brood stock to enhance the runs, they plant more fish than they catch — making the Tribal section of the Queets and Quinault rivers the best steelhead fishing in the United States in terms of size and numbers of fish.

The answer to the survival of our steelhead is obvious.

Let the Tribes manage our steelhead. They are the only ones doing it.

We’ll thank ourselves later if we do the right thing now.


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

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