A Season Of Hope
Happy New Year from Chrome Chasers and all the best to you and your families in 2022. My hope this year is that we can move on from a world dominated by divisiveness and Covid protocols back to some level of normalcy. A winter and spring of steelhead arriving from the Pacific to the rivers of Washington's north coast in abundance. That always brings with it hope! Hope for the next fish of a lifetime.
We still have some prime dates available in February and March, 2022. Give us a call to get on the calendar! Cell: 253-255-5963 email: firstname.lastname@example.org
A Trend I Can Get Behind
If you believe everything you read online these days, some may be thinking they'll never catch a steelhead again. Runs sizes are down from B.C. to California. River systems up and down the west coast have been missing their escapement goals for a number of years now, with the north coast of the OP being an exception. But in a brief moment of positive news these days, NOAA fisheries released its revised Ocean Ecosystem Indicator " Stoplight" chart this past month and some key indicators are beginning to turn around for the north Pacific. We've been in a warm ocean current situation north of the 45th parallel specifically for the past five years, but the new data released from late 2020 thru 2021 shows greatly improved cold water and favorable conditions for salmonids. Not a single "poor" condition rating of any key factor in 2021, and the 2nd best overall conditions for the past twenty years. Assuming this trend continues we should see a rebound in fish survival rates in the ocean, that's great news for steelhead and salmon anglers. Hopefully this La Nina cycle hangs around.
While it's not our native land, I have always had an appreciation for the amazing landscapes of British Columbia and western Alberta. This past August, a fellow guide and I decided to head to Terrace, British Columbia for an impromptu steelhead trip. This was primarily because we were still licking our wounds over a second year of having a trip to Norway to swing flies for Atlantic salmon cancelled because of Covid restrictions. We jumped through all the hoops with a same day covid test, dropped off the dog with a friend, and made our way to the border. We were in sight of the border crossing at Sumas when my phone rang. It was Tom, an industry partner, he said to pump the brakes "the word is they are going to close the Skeena system any day!" Larry and I are looking at each other in disbelief, yes the word was it was a down year, but close the Skeena system entirely? We're both thinking the same thing, you have got to be kidding. I called another guide in Terrace whom I've known for a few years and he said it was possible but thought they wouldn't close it before September 7th...so less travel time we would get close to a week of fishing in before a potential closure. Considering our other options, chasing summer steelhead somewhere on the Columbia basin, we decided to go for it.
After two days on the road, hauling my travel trailer, we finally arrived on Sunday in Terrace to an OP type of rain...it was an absolute down pour. We scrambled on Monday to find someplace to fish, most everything was blown out of course, but by Tuesday things shaped back up and we we're able to spend the next week swinging flies in a beautiful place and having actually a reasonable amount of success considering we were fishing on foot unguided. We both landed several nice fish the first day and felt pretty satisfied with our efforts. Over the course of the next week we had enough success to keep us fishing hard and tired at the end of each day. It's one of the most beautiful places I've ever traveled to and feel fortunate to have gotten the opportunity one more time. I hope to be back soon.
Speaking with fellow industry professionals involved in the fishery in BC, it seems that much of the problem with the decline in steelhead numbers recently has very little too due with angler pressure and a lot more with commercial interests and the government's attempt to supplement the commercial fishing business. Much of the upper Babine sockeye spawning grounds have been "enhanced" by BC Fisheries to quadruple the spawning habitat available. That sounds good until the consequences of a booming commercial sockeye fishery out in the delta of the Skeena river system during the prime part of the wild steelhead migration are in conflict. The steelhead aren't declining as much as they are the victim of by-catch of the commercial fishing industry. Again, the shear arrogance of men to think that we can do one better than mother nature and "enhance" sockeye returns, over steelhead that bring hundreds of millions of tourism dollars to these small communities for a catch and release fishery is bewildering.
In the world of sport fishing here in Washington we are in a constant battle as angler's with commercial fishing interests, the various native tribe's fishing rights, special interest groups, and lastly environmental conditions. When do any of us become greater than the fish themselves? We fight over who has the right to kill the last few fish. When do the fish get their own voice? Why can't people stop killing them? In every fishery that I've been around, when people stop intentionally killing fish, the fish thrive. When can we "manage" fisheries for abundance instead of Maximum Sustained Yield? I do believe in harvest where appropriate, but every salmonid fishery I've been around, we take runs that are relatively healthy and we abuse it until we can't meet the escapement model, invented by us, and then modify the management to conform to the new reality. We refuse to see our inevitable future.
This past fall salmon season was a great example of how misguided our "management" is. We had one of the best coho "catching" seasons in a long time. The state decided, thankfully, that low forecasted "wild" fall coho runs precluded a retention season for them. It was therefore determined that only hatchery coho should be retained, but each angler would be allowed to keep a wild fall chinook from all the rivers of the north coast. Now for clarity, this years return of fall chinook were for the most part fish coming back from a spawning year that was closed to all sport fishing for several weeks because of overharvest of chinook by one of the local tribes here on the OP. Yes, you read that correctly, they told us to kill the few chinook coming back this year from a poor spawning cycle five years ago in order to save the wild coho returning this year...What? Unbelievably most of the area guides and anglers did exactly what the state told them to do, they killed kings at the highest rate that I've seen in a long time. A very short sighted correction to an impending problem. Why didn't they close it to retention of wild coho AND wild chinook. Now your probably wondering why the coho season was so good if it was a poor return... well, turns out if you don't kill them there tends to be a lot more fish in the river. Maybe the state will recognize its mistake and close it to all wild fish retention on the rivers in the future until we see a major recovery in stocks.
A Favorite Guide Moment From 2021
The winter/spring of 2021 was a complete game changer for the peninsula's steelhead anglers including no fishing from a boat. For the spey angling community this was a huge bonus, fewer fish were being interacted with from both fly and gear anglers alike from boats, so in theory more fish should be holding in open water. Regardless of where the steelhead were hanging out one thing was obvious...we had more prime water conditions than I'd seen in a number of years on the Hoh and the fishing was pretty darn good overall.
This particular day started off fairly typically, a "ROUGH" launch start, dropping the raft off a 20 foot cliff to the river. My primary concern was getting Mike down to the boat without breaking his neck or his hip, he's over 80 after all, but he must have been feeling good that day because before I knew it he was standing on the gravel bar next to the raft waiting for me. I was needing a few minutes to get myself together so, we started swinging the run at the put in. Mike sauntered across the gravel bar to where I indicated he start his swing and I rounded up a cup of coffee from the thermos and joined him. I'd been doing well in this run, but virtually all the fish had come from one bucket, we'll call it the white rock. To be honest, it looked like the river might be a little too low that day to hold one there. I explained to Mike where in relation he was to the white rock and when he was close to slow down and work the area thoroughly. As he neared the rock, I told him it should happen in the next few casts, always good to create confidence that he's in the right spot and it's about to happen from my experience. I turned around to snap a picture of the fog lifting up over the trees that morning...took a sip of coffee...and heard over my shoulder "oh yeah...oh yeah...OH YEAH BABY" and he was on. After a nice wrestling match between Mike and this steelhead I was able to slide the net under the buck, wishing I had brought the bigger net but managed to shuffle the fish into the basket. We got a nice photo and a great highlight to his spey fishing career with one of his largest steelhead ever. Those are the moments that remind me why I enjoy doing this so much, that will last a lifetime for both of us.
The 2022 Hoh River Winter/Spring Steelhead Forecast
It's all in the name, I think a change to "Conservation Management Plan" might if nothing else sound better. On the bright side the 2022 season forecast is about 10% above last year so there is some silver lining in here. Interestingly, the state has adjusted its mortality rate for catch and release bank fishing from about 8.5% to around 13% last season. This is a revision from last year's creel survey and the estimated mortality rate increase of no boat angling. So according to the state we actually killed more fish as a whole by bank fishing, conservation goal met? Do they truly believe that or is this a way to quantify a larger share of mortalities to sport anglers to reduce tribal take? I'm still a little confused by this one.