By Bob Margulis
These days, the Lady Gaga of American fly fishing is steelhead: those sexy, hot, elusive, manic, oversized quarry that are the stuff of folklore and the fabric of an elite group of single-malt drinking, spey wielding anglers sporting reels the size of coffee grinders that sound like a twelve cylinder ’75 Jaguar doing zero to sixty on its last four ounces of oil. Nine years ago I would drive from my home in Seattle to the family cabin near Driggs, Idaho, stopping in fly shops between the Cascades and the Rockies, and never see a single spey rod. Today, the selection of spey rods, lines, and reels in shops in places like Jackson, WY and Idaho Falls, ID rival those of Kaufmann’s or Orvis in Seattle. You could have knocked me over with a size 22 midge the first time I saw a group of casters throwing 90 foot Snap-Ts at their weekly speyclave on the Snake River outside Wilson, WY. But there’s one serious problem with this picture: our steelhead are disappearing at an alarming rate.
Now, as most people know, steelhead are known as “the fish of a thousand casts”—and as noted Olympic Peninsula Guide author Doug Rose says, that probably referred to guys using gear (and in an era when there were many more fish). Sadly, the reaction of aspiring steelhead flyfishers has been to flatten the learning curve and pull out all the stops. Guides fishing from a boat with bobbers and nymphs, working slots like a backtroller pulling hotshots, with their ‘sports’ bragging of four fish days, unfortunately has become all too common on a small number of rivers. The closure of major Washington river systems, such as the Skagit/Sauk watershed during the winter wild steelhead season, has created intense pressure on the remaining quasi-productive rivers. It used to be the biggest challenge was finding and hooking a steelhead. Now it’s locating a stretch of water where you can swing a fly without finding yourself in a crowd reminiscent of Times Square on New Year’s Eve. And the phenomenon isn’t restricted to winter: some banner year Columbia system summer-run returns have made the Deschutes and Grand Ronde in October start to feel like the California gold fields of 1849. And then there are those who can afford to visit the past by paying five to ten thousand to fish the Dean, Kamchatka, Skeena systems in British Columbia, or some other remote and restricted river. As a consequence, out of consideration for the fish and the quality of the experience, it is mid-April and I have yet to fish for winter run steelhead in Washington this year. Frankly, giving the fish a break is the one thing most people won’t do. But just as Congress is starting to deal with the country’s long term deficit, as anglers and environmentalists we must start to deal with our threatened wild steelhead.
Organizations like the Wild Steelhead Coalition, the Wild Fish Conservancy, Native Fish Society, and fly clubs, local and national, have been fighting various battles with the state and tribes for over a decade now. They have made some noteworthy progress. With the Olympic Peninsula as a shameful exception, wild steelhead in Washington can no longer intentionally be killed by sport fishers and must be released. Recently, in a small number of rivers, hatchery steelhead retention has become mandatory. Studies have shown that some number of hatchery steelhead choose to stay in the river and interbreed with wild fish. This creates both inferior offspring as well as polluting the gene pool. So what can you do? You can start by whacking your limit of hatchery fish. Eat them or give one to a friend. I’d tell you to plant one in your garden but it is illegal to waste food fish in Washington. Years of catch and release ethic has turned us into a bunch of pacifist fish coddlers. In order to rid the South Fork of the Snake of rainbows that are outcompeting and interbreeding with native Yellowstone cutthroats, Idaho Fish and Game offers a cash bounty of up to $1,000 to encourage fly fisherman to whack rainbows. Remember, every hatchery steelhead you whack is a boon for wild steelhead.
The more we handle these fish, the more pressure we put on them, the more redds that get trampled, the worse things will get. A couple of years ago Washington’s steelhead regulations changed so that it is no longer legal to remove a steelhead from the water that is going to be released. I wish I had a dollar to contribute to a steelhead advocacy organization for every picture I’ve seen since then showing a wild steelhead held out of water. Are you getting the picture? Leave them in the water and use one of the low impact ‘net gloves’ on the hand that is tailing the fish.
Last year, DNA analysis, based on a 15-year study of 12,725 steelhead from Oregon’s Hood River, showed that up to 40 percent of the genes in returning steelhead came from wild rainbow trout, the resident form of O. Mykiss, not other steelhead. Clearly, rainbow trout that share the rivers with our wild steelhead now need a lot more of our attention than we ever realized. Treat these fish like the precious jewels they are. If you fish for trout on a steelhead river, fish barbless, handle them gently (if at all—even better, use a device like the Ketchum release), and do not remove them from the water. And for steelhead advocacy groups, the focus now needs to include stronger protections for wild rainbow trout in our steelhead watersheds.
How much did you spend for your steelhead gear? A spey rod, reel and line can easily set you back between $650 to well over a thousand bucks. Flies, tying material, waders, jacket, boots, and now you’re into it for a couple of grand. Think about this: you probably just spent more than the total 2010 membership dues received by the Wild Steelhead Coalition! And what about the companies who made all that gear? Do you know if they made substantial contributions to organizations advocating on behalf of steelhead? With rare exception (special kudos to Yvon Chouinard/Patagonia) the shameful truth is they probably did not. Let them know they should at least contribute the retail price of a couple of their highest priced products to each and every steelhead advocacy group (rereading that I am embarrassed at having written it as it’s such a pathetically low bar). While I’m not looking to alienate those who make their living from recreational steelhead fishing, the fact is that there are few retailers, manufacturers, publishers, and guides who are contributing their fair share—and heartfelt thanks to those who do: you are a small minority and we should return that support with our patronage.
On the other hand, one of the most creative ideas I’ve seen, in the category of ‘power to the steelheaders’ was contained in an editorial by Frank Amato, in the May 2009 Salmon Trout Steelheader, called “A Manifesto for Restoring Wild Steelhead and Salmon Runs Including a Radical Proposal.” In it he said “Here’s how you and I just might be able to–quickly and inexpensively–rebuild wild steelhead and salmon runs! Join me now and help stream-feed, mile-by-mile, millions of starving, just-spawned and yearling wild juvenile steelhead, coho, chinook, and cutthroat from May until October in over a thousand West Coast streams!” Amato encouraged people to feed fish food pellets and provided some tips for success. Talk about taking things into your own hands. I didn’t do it at the time for lack of science. Just prior to seeing Frank’s Manifesto I had asked a fisheries biologist what he thought a 19” trout in a steelhead river was about. His response was that it was probably a steelhead smolt that, under good stream conditions had enough food to grow large in the river and, as a consequence, never migrated to sea. So I thought, “Well, won’t feeding smolts result in fewer steelhead if that occurs?” But now, after seeing the research on the interrelationship between steelhead and wild trout I realize that Frank had it right. My hat’s off to Frank and everyone who followed his lead.
Would you like to be viewed as a steelhead god by your friends? I’ll tell you how it’s done in three easy steps—but first let me tell you a story. Having occasionally caught steelhead on gear in the 1980s I began fly fishing for them in 1998. I had only fished a couple of seasons when I got into a conversation with someone about what will we do when there are so few steelhead left that we just can’t fish for them. I expressed a hope that before it came to that we would at least be allowed to fish a fly with no point. In my first couple of years of steelhead fishing with a fly I came to learn that success was not hooking or landing a fish. Success was putting together all the components of the art to get a steelhead to grab the fly. While some of what comes after that is skill, much of it is also luck and equipment. The real art is in getting a pull. Years later, October 2007, in an article in USA Today on Lee Spencer, the first full-time FishWatch guardian on the North Umpqua, I read that he started cutting the points off the hooks on his flies. “”I was uncomfortable fishing,” Spencer said. “I like these fish too much to kill them, even accidentally, or even to stress them out, unduly.” It had taken him 10 years of trying to catch his first North Umpqua steelhead on a fly. “I am not a Buddhist.” Spencer said. “It is my impression that the less harming or the more harmless my actions are in the world, the better. It probably comes down to as simple as that. It gets down to the heart of the question, ‘Why does a person cast flies,’ or ‘Why does a person catch steelhead in the first place?’ He got the idea from reading about Harry Lemire, one of only two people in the world who has mastered the art of tying a full dressed Atlantic Salmon fly in his hand, who started cutting the points off his hooks in about 1975 whenever he would get into a bunch of fish and didn’t want to waste time playing them. “Everybody thought I was crazy,” Lemire said. “To me the whole peak of everything is the strike or the boil. Everything after that is downhill. Especially if you have to wait a long time to land the fish. When you get a fish on, you get a run and a jump and at the jump it will throw the hook. That was satisfying enough for me.””
So here’s my formula for becoming a steelhead god. One: tie up some of your favorite flies and then tie up some of the same patterns in tubes. Two: when you go steelheading use your favorite flies first and catch a steelhead (hatchery=whack; wild=release). Three: if you caught a wild fish then put that box away, tie on one of the tube flies, and fish the rest of the day. But take note: I didn’t say tie on the tube fly and a hook—just the tube fly. Now an alternative is to add a hook with the point cut off and the stump filed round. Fish the rest of the day for grabs. Brag about how many grabs you had. Start to keep track of how much line each fish takes on a grab. Maybe someday Field & Stream will have a category for this. Remember, there’s no greater distinction than a bunch of diehard steelheaders thinking that you’re even crazier than they are. It may be the only thing my journeyman casts and flies have in common with the late Harry Lemire.
So the next time you head back from the river, having seen more fisherman and fewer fish than you’d like, look in your SUV’s mirror and ask yourself what you are doing to change that. While Margaret Mead said “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world,” on the first Earth Day in 1970, Pogo said “We have met the enemy and he is us.”