PAT NEAL: Waiting for steelhead season

IT’S BEEN ANOTHER tough week in the news, as we wait for the state to decide if they’ll cancel steelhead season.

This would be devastating for many of us who consider steelhead our emotional support animal.

Steelhead are called the fish of a thousand casts. That can translate into 10,000 oar strokes in a boat or walking 100 miles of riverbank searching for steelhead, while spending the equivalent of the Pentagon budget on steelhead fishing gear.

Steelhead are rainbow trout that, like a salmon, go out to sea then return to the river to spawn.

Unlike the salmon, steelhead don’t die after they spawn. Analysis of steelhead otoliths, or ear bones, has revealed that some steelhead have returned to their rivers to spawn 10 times!

That this prolific breeder could be managed into endangered species status in less than 20 years is a testimonial to the dedicated efforts of biologists, bureaucrats and co-managers everywhere who came together to eliminate this iconic creature from our streams.

This miracle of management was made possible with a sustained maximum harvest of our steelhead in a manner not unlike a gardener who harvests their fields but doesn’t plant them.

Considering the woeful mismanagement of our salmon, sturgeon, herring, smelt and bottom fish, it’s no wonder steelhead are endangered. It’s a wonder there is one left!

The process of outlawing steelhead fishing has been years in the making.

They began by closing most of the other steelhead rivers in Washington while leaving Olympic Peninsula rivers open to fishing.

For some reason, our rivers became so crowded you had to bring your own rock to stand on.

Fishing devolved into a cross between a roller derby with rubber boots, and a NASCAR race with boats and fishing poles.

Next, we eliminated steelhead hatcheries on the theory that hatchery steelhead are genetically inferior.

This, despite the scientific evidence that hatchery-raised progeny of native fish brood stock are no different than naturally raised fish. Historically, runs of hatchery-raised salmon and steelhead always fail once you stop planting the fish.

Then it was decided to write more rules to regulate steelhead fishing — to the point where no two steelhead fishers can agree on what the rules say.

Finally, we have been threatened with the nuclear option to deal with the steelhead problem, the emergency closure.

It’s a go-to tactic that worked for closing the winter blackmouth salmon season, the Hoh River spring chinook season and every other fishery that’s managed into extinction.

The fact that the state seems eager to invoke the emergency closure of even catch-and-release fishing on the Quileute, a river that has exceeded escapement levels by thousands of fish, is puzzling.

Even if steelhead fishing is allowed, we may be threatened with another rash of non-sensible rules.

They want to make fishing from a boat illegal.

That was tried on the Elwha River back in the ’70s, and we can see how well that worked.

They made the same stupid rule on the upper Hoh, which only made it impossible for people with disabilities to fish.

If fishing from a boat is illegal, it will eliminate fishing on much of our water since it’s dangerous, if not impossible, to fish from the rugged shorelines along our rivers.

There is no reason to outlaw even catch-and-release fishing on rivers that have met their escapement levels.

There is no reason we cannot help other rivers reach their escapement levels using native brood stock to enhance fish populations.

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 [email protected].

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