OUTDOORS: Poaching in Dungeness River hurts kings

FISH DRIVE MEN to madness.

They drain children’s college funds, dominate precious brain cells and, in some cases, lead to outlaw behavior.

It’s this last little diddy that’s caused a few problems on the Dungeness River of late.

Yes, low flows combined with hundreds of pink salmon are bringing the riff-raff out to the Dungeness Valley.

Not that they haven’t been there before.

After all, the Dungeness was closed to summer trout fishing in large part to discourage poachers.

They see fish, they want fish, so they snag fish.

“It seems like every year the Dungeness gets a big run of pinks, the poachers come out of the woodwork,” said Dan Witczak, a Hurd Creek Hatchery specialist for the better part of two decades.

“We’ve seen signs of snagging, [like hook marks], almost every day down by our trap.”

Of course, this is interesting for two reasons.

First, snagging (hooking fish in the belly) is illegal throughout the state . . . despite what a few Quilcene River yokels say.

Second, as was stated above, fishing of any kind is strictly prohibited on the lower Dungeness during the summer.

This wouldn’t be a huge problem — though still a problem — if not for the presence of spring chinook.

Those fish are currently listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. That means killing those fish is akin to picking off a bald eagle.

With such an act comes federal charges.

“I don’t think people realize what the ramifications are for killing chinook in the Dungeness,” said Witczak, who helps run a brood stock program intended to keep the chinook from going extinct.

One pair of anglers ticketed by Fish and Wildlife officer Win Miller had six pinks and two female chinook with them at the time.

That’s potentially 10,000 smolts for the Hurd Creek brood stock program gone to waste.

Only 21 chinook have returned to Hurd Creek’s trap in the lower Dungeness so far this year, far short of the hatchery goal.

“We needed those two fish,” Witczak said.

“We’ve run a trap for six months trapping chinook, and this year has been the worst year we’ve had in a long time.

“At this time last year we had close to 80 fish. So it’s looking bleak this year for the Dungeness chinook.

“Every one the poachers take makes it that much more difficult.”

Steelhead update

The hatchery steelhead of the Clallam, Pysht and Lyre rivers might not receive a stay of execution after all.

Cuts to Fish and Wildlife’s budget, along with a new management strategy aimed at limiting the impact of hatchery fish on native stocks, spelled the death of hatchery runs for the three Strait of Juan de Fuca tributaries earlier this year.

That’s when the Puget Sound Anglers-North Olympic Peninsula chapter stepped in to save one last run, voluntarily clipping 55,000 steelhead in June that were already hatched.

The effort saved the state about $2,000, but it appears that won’t be enough.

The state still needs more funds to keep the fish alive until their release date in April.

Region 6 fish manager Kirt Hughes estimated the cost at $8,000; money the state doesn’t have.

Nor do the Puget Sound Anglers, for that matter.

“I’ve had some conversations with some of the local sports groups in the Peninsula area,” said Hughes, speaking of the Puget Sound Anglers.

“What we discussed is if there’s an availability for those groups to put some funds together that would cover the cost of feed that we would support those fish [until release].

“In early discussions with the groups, it doesn’t sound like that’s something they are going to be able to come up with.”

Dave Croonquist, the club’s point man on the issue, was not available for comment.

Chapter president Tom Wright did confirm that his group doesn’t have $8,000 at this point in time.

He had not, however, spoken with Hughes about the subject.

Letting the steelhead go into another river isn’t an option since they would compete with ESA listed chinook, Hughes said.

As a result, the fish are likely to be dumped into Jefferson County lakes, including Leland.

“Our goal is to still get some sort of recreational opportunity out of the fish since we put so much resources into them,” Hughes said.

“[The program] has basically been on the chopping block for about five years.

“It’s just unfortunate that we started to rear those fish and the PSA had actually come in and clipped those fish for us prior to when we made the decision to eliminate that production.”

_____

Matt Schubert is the outdoors and sports columnist for the Peninsula Daily News. His column appears on Thursdays and Fridays. He can be reached at matt.schubert@peninsuladailynews.com.

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