After an obviously difficult and bizarre 2020 for everyone, I was particularly looking forward to getting back to our winter steelhead season here on the Olympic Peninsula. Not just because I'm a steelhead addict, it was something I could look forward to...that daily workflow of being on the water 6-7 days per week and avoiding hearing about the news and the nonstop negativity that seems so pervasive these days. Then on December 8th, we had a pretty significant announcement by Washington's Dept. of Fish and Wildlife, changes in our fishing regulations for Washington’s coastal steelhead for the 2021 season. That E-Rule change and my feelings about these regulations are below...
December 14th, 2020, marks the official start of the new WDFW E- Rule change for Washington's coastal steelhead. "State announces changes to coastal steelhead recreational fishing season to meet conservation objectives while preserving angling opportunities" per the December 8th, 2020 WDFW News Release. My immediate reaction to the decision was anger, frustration and a concern for our steelhead fisheries. How will this impact my livelihood and our guides, the fishery I've been involved in for 35+ years, the local economic impact for a small coastal community, and the overall impact to the steelheading community itself. If we stop fishing for steelhead, what voice will be there to protect them? Whether you are an avid nymph angler, die hard swinger, or gear fisher…your angling experience on the Olympic Peninsula, for better or worse, has been changed. That said, I’m getting a lot of phone calls from clients, friends and other industry pros about what the rule changes will do to our fishery as anglers and what it means for the OP’s steelhead. Much negative press is already being published online about the imperiled steelhead of the OP…funny how when a fishing regulation change is made as dramatic as this everyone yells “fire”. It wasn’t being written about last month in every blog, e-mag, sporting magazine and newspaper in the northwest until last week. In reality, everyone I’ve spoken to was excited for the upcoming season, there have been discussions going on with state management for several years about conservation measures moving forward, but until December came we did not expect such a knee jerk reaction from the state. Nothing will be significantly different about this season versus last season except how we fish for them.
Let’s take a look first at what changes this means for our fishery as angler’s. The new regulations changes include no fishing from a floating device, selective gear rules including no use of bait or scent and one single point hook only, release of all wild rainbow trout and coastwide river closures as of April 1st, 2021 during the primary spawning cycle this coming spring. All of these rule changes are straight forward so let’s discuss how it changes our fishery directly.
First off, the big one obviously is no fishing from the boat which impacts us in several ways. Primary being that we clearly cannot cover the amount of water that we did prior to the rule change particularly when we’re nymphing. We will still be floating pristine rain forests, but the time between fishing locations get’s extended giving us time to take it all in, instead of staring at an indicator for hours waiting for a take. Instead we will quickly move to premium fishing spots that we catch 90% of the fish in anyway. Here we can swing, nymph, center-pin, spey-dicator or use any other technique a client wants to. My concern is how many anglers will be "racing" to the next spot creating a backup at prominent fishing spots. For me, I will be avoiding this race, instead likely taking my time and fishing more margins.
Second, it dictates the water that an angler can reasonably fish while wading. This one took some thought, I can’t expect to guide every angler in the same manner, angler wading ability is going to dictate what areas can be fished. What about anglers with a physical hinderance? As it turns out, WDFW has made an exception for those that have a disability that prevents them from wade fishing with an application process that takes approximately 20 days for approval to fish from a boat. So we will have to make fishing location decisions based upon these kinds of factors including angler abilities and their safety. Is it going to be a more difficult fishery, of course, there is no way around that but I also feel like we have an opportunity to have a more meaningful connection to the outdoors and the fish themselves by catching them in more challenging ways. Anglers are going to need to learn new or improve on existing skill sets, I don’t see that as a bad thing. That’s our job, to help reduce that learning curve for clients. Think back to the first time you fished the peninsula throwing around a ridiculously long, super heavy nymph rig or 12’ of T14 on a Skagit line with a 3” bug that felt more like a wet sock than a fly. It wasn’t easy but with time, practice and good coaching we all get better at those skills. I believe that it will have a positive impact for steelhead overall and we become better angler’s because of it with a little time.
As for the last two rule changes including no bait and single point barbless hooks, obviously helpful to the fish. No retention of wild rainbow trout, while I don’t know anyone that does keep trout on the OP, it is important in protecting resident steelhead which are active spawners with adult anadromous steelhead and help to promote genetic diversity across the run.
The fishery has changed. If you haven’t been fishing the peninsula for a decade or more you probably haven’t noticed it. For most, it’s still a world class steelhead fishery… and it remains just that. The peninsula is home to the largest winter steelhead in the world… that makes it a world class fishery, much like the mighty Kenai rivers huge chinook salmon. I have been told by many of our clients over the past several seasons they can’t believe how good the fishing can be on the OP compared to other wild steelhead fisheries they have been active in. But reality is that the numbers are down and have been declining for some time, particularly for the past 5+ years. The north coast of the Olympic Peninsula hasn’t seen as significant a decline as the rest of Washington’s coast, however, it is still down and had the states fisheries managers only made regulation and season changes to rivers outside of the north coast then the entire states worth of winter steelhead enthusiasts would have descended upon the area in numbers that likely would have imperiled it’s steelhead in the future. State fishery managers and the commission who recommends policy changes to the state understood that I believe, and made the decision to go coast wide with the rule. Right or wrong, and I have my own opinion which I’m happy to discuss with anyone, that’s what was done.
Rule changes were made in 2016 because of declining numbers including no bait after February 15th, no retention of wild steelhead, single barbless hooks, and no fishing from a floating device in the upper reaches of the Hoh. Were these rule changes significant enough or the correct changes to give coastal steelhead a better chance to prosper? Well, we know now that they weren’t and some of those changes actually had a negative impact. We don't even have any evidence/facts from the state as to how these rule changes impacted the fishery. Unfortunately, the football has been punted down field ever since to address the problem and now it’s third and long. Is this the hail mary? Should we stop fishing entirely? Are the fish in peril?
Let’s cover some bases first about the current status of coastal steelhead. First, the north coasts numbers on most rivers are not below the state escapement numbers, meaning spawners. In fact, in the Quillayute system, including the Bogachiel, Sol Duc and Calawah rivers the numbers are still 3300+ fish above the states escapement guideline, or about 40+ percent above the escapement floor of 8200 steelhead. In the glacial rivers like the Hoh, Queets and Quinault that numbers dips to about 10+ percent above escapement on average, a number I strongly believe to be inaccurately low based upon my time on the water. Overall, fishery managers have a tendency, because of forecast models, of over forecasting returning fish counts. Past projections have been reasonably accurate here on the north coast, but that’s a problem for much of the central and south coasts systems which are barely making escapement numbers currently or, are well below the necessary number of returning adults. So I think in the short term it’s important that we continue to fish, be watchful that all anglers, including tribal co-managers, are following the rule changes and reducing impacts on the fish overall. Tribal fisheries are the single biggest damaging impact to these fish locally… nets strung across the lower reaches of the river kill more native steelhead on the north coast than any other impact in freshwater. We can discuss ocean conditions, sport angling mortality, derelict gillnets in the river, commercial fisheries impacts outside of the rivers and many other less significant issues like in river predation by seals and sea lions, that all make a difference for steelhead. Gillnets are the single biggest issue when steelhead enter their home waters, no question. We need to be active users of the fishery if anyone is going to protect it. I can assure you that two enforcement officers for the entire upper peninsula are not going to be able to protect our fisheries… pointing fingers at the state about not doing it’s part to protect the fish by enforcement, rules or management hasn’t worked, but as the largest user group, we can make a difference. Here’s a little information you may not have known… do you realize that when we are creel surveyed at the end of our fishing day, the number of steelhead that we report as caught is projected by the state to have a 10% mortality rate. That figure is the sportsman’s share of the run total…if we don’t catch those fish and the tribe can prove that the minimum number of spawners required has been met then the tribe get’s to “catch” those fish that we didn’t presumably kill by mortality rate of catch and release. We all know that our impact is much less than 10%, however it’s imperative that we catch those fish to save them from being gillnetted under the existing tribal co-management strategy. So under the existing management plan by the state/tribes they can really never significantly exceed their own escapement model. That's the real problem to address sooner than later.
I'm still looking forward to the 2021 winter/spring season for a lot of reasons…probably the biggest being the challenge of a changing fishery. We have gotten really good at catching steelhead, both us as guides and you as our clients. It’s almost like we get to experience a new fishery, one that we are intimately familiar with the rivers water, but get to create new techniques to be effective and improving on existing ones with all of you, our great clientele. I’m ready to get on the water and start that process this week. We’ve been seeing some wild and broodstock fish down south already so time to get to work. I have faith in most anglers that they want to do the right thing on the water. Let’s put on our waders, prep the gear and get on the water… there’s still world class steelheading to be done!