By Rich Simms
President, Wild Steelhead Coalition
Are we at a time where there is no place left to go? For this angler, it seems we are approaching a destination I hate to admit or begrudge to accept. The wild, rainforest rivers of the West end of the Olympic Peninsula (OP) is a very special place with a race of legendary wild winter-run steelhead that could rival the world renown Skeena system to the North. The Peninsula Rivers are a place where a twenty-pound fish won’t raise many eyebrows and a crack at a thirty-pound legend is a true possibility.
The rivers of the OP are a magical place that stirs the senses and provides an allure not seen in many other places, isolated by their connection with Olympic National Park. Wild rivers such as the Sol Duc, Hoh and Queets are potentially the closest experience we truly have left as a quality angling experience for large, wild winter steelhead in the Lower 48. That’s the good news. Unfortunately there’s some bad news; with the age of the internet and access to instant media, its identity is cloaked no more, compounded with the fact that many of us have gone off to find new waters and left other great steelhead streams which, due to dwindling runs, are now closed or are a glimmer of their past.
So here’s the problem: the demand has exceeded the supply of wild steelhead and the places to angle for them. As wild steelhead populations decline and the opportunity to angle for them disappear, there is an increased demand for truly amazing wild steelhead angling experiences. The simple result is increased crowding on a handful of rivers left open for angling, which in turns provides increased pressure on wild steelhead and what we all know are not historically heading in the right direction numbers wise. It seems as though the answer for steelhead recovery in the state of Washington is to simply manage by closure, with little regard of impacts to rivers still open. It’s as if we are practicing our own sense of manifest destiny in management strategies for wild steelhead.
A crowded river is not an enjoyable experience, but even more important than our angling experience, it’s not good from a conservation perspective. The caveat is how do you protect the resource, while still protecting angling opportunity for the future? I believe our first priority is to protect wild steelhead. However, it is important to protect what angling opportunities we have left. It is anglers that are the base and main advocates for wild steelhead conservation. If that base and support is lost, the fish will loose in the end.
Is it time for proactive measures in management strategies for the famous rivers of the Olympic Peninsula? Should we take the initiative and manage them as true quality waters and preserve this opportunity for the future?
As anglers we usually don’t like change, but sometimes change may be about responsibility to seek the conservation of the fish first, even if it challenges our skills, effectiveness or the way we’ve always done things. This responsibility should not be viewed as an elitist grab, but more as a sincere commitment to preserve what we have left while preserving our future opportunity..
This year is a Major Rules Cycle within the Washington Department of the Fish and Wildlife (WDFW). It is a big opportunity for the public to propose new ideas and regulations that can potentially benefit wild steelhead recovery. Perhaps it is time for some new ideas to be explored.
For example, is it time once and for all to revisit full wild steelhead release in all waters, no exceptions? What if we had to courage to take a conservation step further and ask for a daily limit on catch and release to two wild steelhead per day? When we start equating total hooking mortalities, plus fish that have been hooked multiple times during a season and potential harm to reproductive fitness, is catch and release angling on a crowded river producing a potential impact even greater than an angler who harvests one legal fish per year?
Should some crowded waters be regulated where floating devices can only be used for transportation only? This concept would benefit wild steelhead to have some refuge in the rivers and temporary relief from the daily onslaught of anglers. How about going barbless year round so release can be quick with less damage? We do it in saltwater, why not in all our rivers? Let’s think outside the box without viewing this as an elitist grab, and perhaps we can preserve our current opportunities, before we are forced in by more closures. Wasn’t it the challenge of steelhead angling what drew us there in the beginning?
Think for a minute about how special of a place the OP is for wild winter steelhead. The famous tributaries of the Skeena are managed as quality waters and is believed it has helped preserve the fishery there. Some of the regulation ideas I referred to above are part of the management of the quality waters up in British Columbia. Every fall. angler’s flock to these waters, gear and fly alike, and don’t think twice about the regulations limiting their ability to fish them. Why can’t we treat the rivers of the OP and its steelhead with the same respect and protection? What is stopping us from having our own quality waters or crown jewel in our backyard, besides ourselves? Let’s do it for the sake of protecting what little opportunity we have left, but even more important, let’s do it to help ensure we have wild steelhead in our future in a special place.