PAT NEAL: How’s the fishing?


If I had a buck for every time I have heard that question I would not be a lowly wilderness gossip columnist.

It’s a silly question to begin with because almost nobody will believe the answer.

If you say fishing is hotter than a $2 pistol people will think you’re lying because good fishing is so rare these days.

On the other hand, if you say that the fishing is poor, people will think you are lying to cover up the fact that fishing is good and you want to keep it a secret.

The truth lies somewhere in the middle.

So far this winter the steelhead fishing has been slow.

This is consistent with the declining runs of salmon we have experienced in recent years.

The extinction of our fisheries represents one of the most complex natural resource disasters in the history of America.

It is far more significant than the slaughter of the 60 million North American bison because the salmon represent a far greater biomass across a wider geographical area.

There are as many reasons for the disappearance of our once-incredible runs of salmon and steelhead as there are excuses for not doing anything to prevent their extinction.

Our fish have become the unfortunate victims of too many unsolvable problems.

Currently there is a concern that a population explosion of pinnipeds — that’s a fancy word for seals and sea lions — are eating so many salmon they are starving what’s left of the killer whales.

Since the passage of the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) in 1972, the population of sea lions on our west coast has climbed to around 300,000.

The population of harbor seals in the Salish Sea alone is more than 50,000.

Other predators kill the salmon even before the pinnipeds get a shot at them.

During the summer our rivers are overrun with families of mergansers that can number up to a dozen or more birds.

They follow their mother catching baby salmon as soon as they emerge from the gravel.

As the summer passes the families of mergansers merge together in big flocks of 50 birds or more.

These birds hunt together in packs removing thousands of salmon from the rivers before they have a chance to migrate out to the ocean and get eaten by the pinnipeds.

People have suggested killing pinnipeds to save our salmon.

Killing one animal to save another has been a go-to conservation strategy since the past century.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has begun killing up to 3,600 barred owls in Washington, Oregon, and northern California to save northern spotted owls.

Killing pinnipeds is far more controversial with animal rights people who love seals and sea lions.

On the Columbia River, scientists have estimated that the number of salmon killed by sea lions and birds is comparable to the number of fish killed by dams each year.

Which leads us to humans, the apex predator of the planet that has evolved a technology able to kill all life in the water.

More than 55 percent of the spawning and rearing habitat once available to salmon and steelhead in the Columbia River Basin is currently blocked by dams.

All of which brings us back to the steelhead, which is considered by many to be the greatest game fish on Earth.

It has been called the fish of a thousand casts.

It is now being killed out by a death of a thousand cuts.

So, how’s the fishing?

Fishing isn’t as good as it used to be but it’s not as bad as it’s going to be.


Pat Neal is a Hoh River 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

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