Monday, February 17, 2014

Olympic Peninsula Wild Steelhead- Why aren't they listed too?

  Olympic Peninsula Wild Steelhead- Why aren't they listed too?

   By current conventional wisdom February through April is considered "prime time" for winter run wild steelhead fishing out here on the Olympic Peninsula. And if you were to rely upon all of the advertising- for guides, shops, tackle, boats, rods, reels, flies, jigs, lures, waders, boats, etc., you would believe that the fish are fairly teeming up the rivers out here by now. And even though the hatchery origin winter steelhead ordinarily outnumber the wild fish here, even on some rivers that do not have a hatchery, the wild fish runs draw the crowds. And it is all the more crowded out here, with many more anglers, boats and guides, now that the Puget Sound rivers are closed to protect those rivers late winter run wild steelhead under the Endangered Species Act. Apparently no one at Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife felt that it would be necessary to afford these last remaining runs of wild winter steelhead any further protections out here. And so the harvest continues here, on severely depressed runs of fish. And almost no one is left alive today who remembers the fact that there were many big runs of huge wild steelhead, as early as October and November on these rivers. Now they are gone, replaced with hatchery fish. Meh . . . Tell me how good it all is.

   The Hoh River wild winter steelhead run failed to achieve the "Spawner Escapement Goal" numbers last winter. And this has happened frequently, over the last 13 years that I have been out here, and for nearly half of the previous twenty years before that as well. In my opinion those "goal" numbers are way too low to begin with. The Hoh River could host many tens of thousands of spawning wild steelhead every year. And yet the state is hoping for just a little over 2000 fish to spawn. Perhaps the concern is that if too many fish were to get into the river all at once, all of them rubbing side-by-side, as they get packed in so tightly, that the resulting friction might generate enough heat to actually boil off all of the water! Your guess is as good as mine. But it is a fact that we are now at something like 4% or less of historic known 1900's abundance. And that was well less than what was here before the settlers came west. But let's blame it all on the tribes anyway. And that way we won't have to change.

   And the Hoh River wild salmon are not faring any better. Last year the Olympic National Park fisheries managers closed the Hoh River within park boundaries to ALL fishing from spring through fall, to protect the remnant runs of wild Chinook salmon, which now number but a few hundred. And true to form, in their inscrutable wisdom W.D.F&W. managers kept the state owned portion of the river open for fishing anyway. And so the new cadre of guides, and anglers, and the old timers too, came out here to swing spey flies, nymphs, beads, jigs, floats and lures, over those last few wild fish, just as they have every year. And most of them claim to be summer steelhead fishing. There was some outrage expressed over the NPS closure of the season, as so many anglers now feel that they are providing a necessary public service in fishing for the upriver stray hatchery origin steelhead. Even if they are hooking, over playing, landing and GoPro-gloating over the last handful of wild salmon along the way.

1/6/15 UPDATE: 2014 escapement note. The salmon and steelhead runs on the Hoh River hit another all time low for escapement this year. Some of the lowest numbers of spawning wild fish ever recorded here.

   It's not just the Hoh River wild steelhead- all of these rivers wild runs are in trouble! "Why aren't they listed?" They waited too long to list the Puget Sound rivers runs under the Endangered Species Act, and they are waiting too long to list the Olympic Peninsula wild steelhead as well. It's not about science or reality, it's about politics!

   We have some of the most beautiful wild rivers in the lower 48 states. Much of the upper watersheds and wild fish spawning and rearing habitats are intact because of the protections afforded by the Olympic National Park boundaries, and the Park regulations specific protections on Olympic Peninsula wild steelhead. Yet the numbers of wild spawning anadromous fish remaining here are truly, embarrassingly tragic in their diminished status. It only took a few human generations to crush the fish here. There is plenty of blame to go around, as the sports fishermen argue over who has done the most harm, blaming each other, blaming "the state" and the tribes. And the science, and various scientists and biostitutes alike, seem to point in so many directions all at once, to explain the loss of the fish, that they always provide an abundance of distractions from any serious discussion of how we all must change our ways. Someday they will be standing at the riverside with armloads of data, and no fish.

    But for now- I won't be guiding anyone for winter run wild Olympic Peninsula Steelhead any more. Personally I feel that it has gone too far out here. The numbers of wild fish do not support sports fishing, not even a catch and release fishery. Not when we are talking about a "handful" of fish returning, and only a few thousand escaping the gauntlet of nets, boats and hooks to spawn. And according to the state's own observations, most of the escaped fish were caught and released by anglers too. How many times? So many anglers and guides will cite research that supports their claim that "Catch and release does no harm." I'm sorry- That is Bullshit. Not with the numbers like what we have here now. 

   And we know that hatcheries are very limited in their utility as anything but a stop-gap measure to extend fishing opportunity for those who would suckle the State Hatchery Tit. And yet there is a small gang of guides here now who are seriously promoting the notion that we can have a "balance" of wild and hatchery fish here, and that we should have even more hatchery production. Even though there is ample peer reviewed, published scientific research to show that hatchery fish are detrimental to wild fish in a number of demonstrable ways. They even produced their own industry sponsored movie to sell this idea. Please. Shame on you!  Look at what happened throughout the Pacific Northwest this winter, as  the winter hatchery runs never really showed up. And they don't yet know exactly why. Does anyone have a concern that something similar may have befallen the wild winter steelhead this year as well?  No? Let's wait until spring, after the spawner survey counts are concluded, to address that. No sense in changing our ways at this late date.

   How much do we have to lose, before we can't get them back? No one really knows. But I do know that when they finally have closed down fishing, it is very slow to ever look anything like a seriously valid recovery. And as soon as they get a few fish back, they go harvest them again. A well managed catch and release season, on healthy self sustaining populations of wild fish, has proven to be a valid management tool. But it is not a valid recovery tool on rapidly diminishing runs! Washington maintains this fishing as an "all or nothing game." We are almost down to nothing here now. Aside from my own contempt for the way that the managers, the angling community and "the industry" have conducted themselves out here, as far as any kind of responsible stewardship or advocacy, and due to the ever growing frequency of encounters with asinine, rude and stupid behavior while on the water, I can not in good conscience promote trips for the last wild steelhead.

   I have been screaming about this ever since I came here almost 14 years ago. Washington has  serious a credibility problem with it's fisheries management system. We need to take this issue to the Legislature, to our elected Representatives and our Governor, and to the Press, and to the streets. We should be boycotting WDF&W and their Steelhead Seasons! 

   3/8/14 Note:


   My many thanks to The Open Fly Podcast team for our recent  interview. To listen to the recorded podcast go to The Open Fly  Podcast Episode #7 (My segment is in the second half of the  episode.)  This has been the hardest decision of all in my time      guiding out here on the Olympic Peninsula.   


I'm really looking forward to sea-run Coastal Cutthroat fishing on the saltchuck this spring.      
  See you then!

  Bob Triggs
  Little Stone Flyfisher



adipose said...

I stand with Bob.

Anselmo said...


On a similar slant see shane Andersons film "Wild Reverence"‎

FlyBill said...

Nice article Bob!

Unknown said...

That's a stand up position, my hat's off to you!

Unknown said...

Brave argument. I hope you stay on the peninsula and continue to speak for the fish and rivers. The fish could sure use your voice.

Greg M said...

I'm 65 years old and I wish I would have stood up 25 years ago when some of us saw this coming. I support you Bob for the sake of all of our grandchildren that may have the desire to go steelhead fishing on the OP someday.

NWangler said... are echoing the same ideas that Bill McMillan spoke to me some 25 years ago while guiding with him on the G.R. I feel responsible for my lack of action and applaud your stand on this issue. I have been deciding myself where my guide business goes and what is most important. Wild places and wild fish...Thanks for making this decision easier for me.