By Mike Carey
Imagine amazing fishing on a six mile stretch of the Hoh River, watching fellow anglers wade along pristine waters and perfect tail outs holding beautiful, native steelhead. Your next cast could be that twenty pound wild steelhead of a lifetime. But while you watch your fellow anglers pursuing the regal steelhead, you can only float by – because you have no legs. You proudly served your county. You made a brave sacrifice for your fellow Americans. And now, you can’t fish because a new Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) rule has taken your rights to fish away. Abled-bodied anglers can still fish – they just hop out of their drift boats and wade those runs. But you got into the boat with great effort, and to get out again would be very difficult, not to mention you’ll be unable to walk along the river. So you are out, denied the opportunity solely because of a rule enacted that no longer allows anglers to fish from a boat on a six mile stretch of the Hoh River.
Sounds pretty unfair, doesn’t it?
That was my first reaction when I heard about the recent new regulation changes enacted to protect wild steelhead. Regardless of whether these new rules will actually help wild steelhead, and not to get into that whole side of the debate, the new rules to me seemed unfair at the least, and a form of “Institutional Discrimination” at the worst. To be clear, I am not saying WDFW or the anglers that voted in favor of this option were voting to discriminate against anglers with disabilities. Rather, like many things in society, able-bodied individuals never stopped to consider all the ramifications that these new rules would cause to those with disabilities. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not without guilt. It never crossed my mind when I sent in my public comment on which option I was in favor of. It was only after the fact, as I pondered the implications that it occurred to me how this would affect anglers with disabilities. As a nurse of over twenty five years, you’d think I would have seen it coming from the word “go”. I guess that’s the nature of life. It’s sometimes hard to see how our actions and choices affect others.
My quest for a fair solution to what I saw as an unfair situation for anglers with disabilities led me to send off letters to the WDFW and my legislative representatives. In some cases I got responses that were oblivious to the points I had tried to make. One representative told me “while possibly inconvenient, (the new rules) do not prohibit fishing from a boat on the majority of the river, so handicapped anglers will still be able to enjoy fishing most of the river from boats that comply with the new rule.” Now if you’re a steelhead angler you immediately will understand how ignorant of steelhead fishing that comment is. We know certain parts of rivers are more productive, and frankly, interesting to fish and float than others. To tell a handicapped angler that you still have other parts of the river to fish is in itself a discriminatory statement, when we again consider that other anglers can still fish it, and the only reason they can and a disabled angler can’t is a rule that restricts access for some but not all.
Fortunately, I have good news to share.
My letter to WDFW received a response from David Low, Fisheries Biologist, Montesano, WA. He followed up on my concerns and educated me on a process that allows anglers with disabilities to fish with techniques and in locations other, abled-bodied anglers could not.
This is a way that WDFW can “level the playing field” so to speak for anglers with disabilities. An example of this is the disabilities fishing access point at the Blue Creek launch, where handicapped anglers are able to wheel up to the access and fish the river. This location is closed to able-bodied anglers (and by the way, if you’re fishing from a boat, you’re not supposed to be running your gear through the area in front of this handicapped access). Another example is the discounted licenses that anglers with disabilities pay for. WDFW recognizes that people with disabilities are often on limited budgets, and that as a society we have an obligation to help these anglers with reduced fees.
The additional information I found out about is, unfortunately, not in the WDFW Fishing Regulations booklet. I hope they decide to change that. You have to dig into the WDFW web site, but once there you’ll find the information and phone numbers you need to get started.
As to our specific issue with fishing on this six mile stretch of the Hoh River from a boat, here is Mr. Low on what he found out:
“The state has the ability to issue Special Use Permits to qualifying anglers with disabilities. “The “Special Use Permit” (SUP) WAC 232-12-819 is a tool designed to accommodate a person with a disability in an activity they otherwise would not be able to participate in.”
I then asked does the process allow anglers with disabilities to fish from a boat on this stretch of the Hoh River. His response:
“That is correct. In speaking with the Director’s Office and their ADA person I think I have a handle on the process. That phone number I provided will get a person through to the right people to start the process. Once their file has been reviewed then the permit they’re issued will allow them to fish in a manner that more able-bodied anglers would not. A permit for the Hoh, for example, would likely allow them to fish from a boat on anchor where others have to exit the boat. I’ve only seen one of these permits and it was actually for a quadriplegic and that individual could use an electric reel and barbed hooks in a barbless zone.
So they seem to be fairly specific for the activity being undertaken but are definitely a great tool for qualified individuals to hopefully level the playing field a bit.”
If you are disabled, or have a family member or friend that is disabled, I encourage you to contact the WDFW ADA person to start the process they have in place to allow you the same opportunities to fish waters that able-bodied anglers are able to fish.
The WDFW ADA Committee can be reached at 360-902-2349. More information on the WDFW can be found at:
WDFW Disability Information
Editors Note - this article was published in NWFR in 2015