By Jason Brooks

Back on November 30th, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife announced the winter steelhead seasons. The season was set after a series of meetings with fisheries managers from the agency, Ad-Hoc Coastal Steelhead Advisory Group, co-managers from several tribes, and the public. They all got to voice their concerns and ideas on the state of winter steelhead. After some deliberations and negotiations, the seasons were finally set as the first fish began to arrive. While some rivers will get to have a fishery this year, including some with the ability to fish out of a boat (where last year this was outlawed), other rivers came with the “no boat” restriction and a reduced season, while other fisheries were closed altogether, again.

That is so important is to realize that steelhead are revered in the Pacific Northwest. They are the state fish of Washington, and many anglers look forward to the opportunity to stand along the banks of a glacier fed river and cast a line. The fish could end up being an 8-pound hatchery brat or a 20-pound “fish of a lifetime” native sea-run rainbow trout. That is the beauty of winter steelhead, you never know what will bite. The fish themselves are known for their aggressive fight and willingness to grab a spoon swinging in current, or chomp onto a plug slowly making its way past a garden of sunken boulders.

The issue at hand is the wild or native fish, the ones that most anglers are drawn to along the coastline. These large fish are the definition of winter steelheading and have been under strict catch and release regulations for several years. Even with these protections, along with the most notable rivers having bait restrictions, single point hook regulations, and other ways to help the fish-including not being able to remove them completely from water-the wild fish are still struggling. The argument can be made that it is fishing practices by the co-managers, as tribal fisheries still allow the use of gill nets. But tribes also play a key role in raising broodstock fish, which are native runs of fish to the rivers that are raised in hatcheries to supplement the wild runs but keep the genetics specific to the river system. Tribes also have federal safeguards with rights established by the Boldt decision as well as other rulings, treaty rights, and heritages that go back thousands of years. There is no use arguing or blaming, as that is for the courts and federal regulators to decide. Instead, anglers need to realize that the seasons are based on wild fish return expectations and escapement goals.  

First, here are the rivers where you cannot fish this winter, and why. The Chehalis River system has not met its wild escapement in recent runs and this is

 concerning. Even on certain tributaries such as the Skookumchuck and Wynoochee Rivers that have robust hatchery returns, the wild fish are not making it to the spawning grounds. Both of these rivers have dams on them, and hatcheries that produce abundant returns in the thousands. Both are also closed. This is a two-fold problem, as the wild fish need spawning grounds as well as the ability to reach them, but the hatchery fish are plentiful. That creates the problem. Sport fishing anglers want the opportunity to catch the hatchery fish, but the low returns of wild fish are just too fragile to risk the impacts. Then there are all those hatchery fish and what to do with them, as WDFW does not want them spawning in the river. This means keeping the hatchery gates open, and some will be donated to food banks while others will be collected and then planted in local lakes. But steelhead don’t die when they spawn, which means if WDFW collects all of the hatchery fish and removes them from the system then they can’t return in subsequent years as much larger fish. The Wynoochee is known for putting out some very large hatchery fish each winter, but that is because this occurs when fish are left in the system by either bypassing the hatchery or being released back into the river where they go back out to the ocean and then return in another year or two.

The Chehalis and its other main tributary, the Satsop, are also now closed. The Satsop, like other rivers, was open in early December, but mostly because of a robust coho run. A few miles away is the Humptulips River, well known for late coho and a run of hatchery steelhead. This river as one of a few that you could go out on Christmas Day and catch either species of fish. It too closed to steelhead on December 16th, well before the main run of hatchery steelhead showed up. The reason why the Humptulips will be closed when the bulk of the steelhead arrive is due to wild escapement. Last year the escapement goal was 1,600 fish, but only 928 showed up. Again, this year the escapement goal is 1,600, but the run is predicted to be 1,222 wild fish, which is 24% below the escapement goal. The “Hump”, as it is known, was a good fishery in February and March, when the steelhead runs were intermixed with hatchery fish and wild fish. This year it will be closed, but there is hope for the Humptulips as it does not have a dam and the forks of the river still run clear and cold for the native steelhead to spawn in. This river also has a decent lower river estuary, which floods with each tide change, and brackish water helps smolts on their short journey out into Gray Harbor and Pacific Ocean.

Further up the coastline are rivers steep in native traditions. The Upper Quinault, Queets and Clearwater flow out of the Olympic National Park, which also announced a closure to the portions of the rivers within the park boundaries. Following the ONP, the WDFW has closed them until an agreement can be met with the Quinault tribe. It isn’t until you reach the Hoh River where you will find a steelhead season, but once again this year you cannot fish from a boat on the Hoh. The town of Forks is known for winter steelheading, and this year there will be a season on most of the rivers that this region is known for.

The Quillayute River system, made up of the Bogechiel, Sol Duc, and Calawah have a steelhead season this winter. And unlike last year, when you had to get out of the boat, these rivers won’t have that restriction this year depending on which sections of the rivers you are one. Guides and sport anglers complained this is a safety concern for these rivers that are known for steep gradient drops and huge boulder gardens. The Quillayute system is one of the few that still makes the wild escapement goals and even has a few fish to spare which means it should stay open until the end of March when they are set to close.

So, for the angler that can’t make it all the way out to Forks, where can one fish for winter steelhead? Southwest Washington’s famed Cowlitz river will be the “place to go” once again. WDFW shifted the winter steelhead plants to align more with the traditional runs, with the height of the run being in February, where in years past it as more likely to catch a hatchery fish in December. Luckily the Cowlitz is a big river and there is a lot of room to roam and a lot of hatchery fish to catch. Those with jet sleds do best here as they can hit terminal areas such as Blue Creek and Mission Bar repeatedly. Bank anglers have options here too and the technique of “glow balling” started here. This is when anglers hike down the riverbank just before midnight and cast glow-in-the-dark lures, hoping to catch their limit before the new day starts, then catch another limit before making the hike back to the parking lot.

There are several other rivers in Southwest Washington where winter steelhead will be returning, and all an angler needs to do is look up the smolt plants, hatchery locations and regulations. The regulations are the most important part, as they can change depending on escapement of wild fish and hatchery returns.

Back to the wild fish. One of my favorite times to fish for winter steelhead was in late March and early April. Those days are gone, for now. One thing we can do to help native steelhead so we can once again fish in late winter and early spring is to support restorative projects and organizations. Complaining and finger pointing won’t help the fish, but donating to a conservation organization or better yet, joining one and becoming active in it will help. WDFW often looks for volunteers to help fin clip or mark hatchery fish, and so do other groups needing help with nutrient enhancement projects and river clean-ups. Become active in sport fishing organizations that support hatchery fish like the CCA, Hatchery & Wild, and Puget Sound Anglers, and most of all, keep up to date on what the WDFW Commission is doing and the direction they are going.