By Michael Carman
Olympic Peninsula News Group
A grim verdict for steelheaders on the West End as new rule restrictions announced late Tuesday, just two weeks into the traditional beginning of the steelheading season, will leave anglers bank-bound and baitless coast-wide beginning Dec. 14.
The biggest change is a prohibition on fishing from any floating device on any coastal river from the Forks area south through Grays Harbor.
Boat-based steelheading techniques such as side drifting, plugging and bobber dogging provide the best chance at catching and ultimately releasing any wild steelhead.
Anglers and guides still can row their drift boats to access fishing holes but won’t be able to plug or plunk while aboard; they’ll have to find bank access. Finding such bank access will be a difficult task on some rivers with much bank access only on private property.
Accessibility issues also have been raised as some steelhead anglers just aren’t up to the task of continuously climbing in and out of a drift boat or wading into and safely fishing while in a fast-flowing river.
And imagining the scene at Richwine Gravel Bar near the Quillayute River’s confluence on a busy weekend brings to mind Woodstock-levels of combat fishing.
Selective gear regulations also take effect Monday, with no bait or scents allowed during the meat of hatchery season, when sports anglers are actually allowed to keep hatchery steelhead.
The use of only one single-point barbless hook will be allowed, and all wild rainbow trout will be required to be released.
Rivers also will close to steelhead fishing earlier than before, with the biggies, the Bogachiel, Calawah and Sol Duc rivers, all shutting down April 1.
Despite the objections of guiding associations and steelhead anglers, maybe the most passionate fishing advocates of all anglers, the state Department of Fish and Wildlife selected this approach out of four options intended to boost wild steelhead escapement coast-wide that were presented at a well-attended pre-Thanksgiving online meeting.
Despite the presentation lacking much, if any, information on the impact of recreational anglers on steelhead stocks, particularly on the Quillayute River system, Fish and Wildlife models suggest the wide-spanning moves will reduce steelhead catches by 50 percent coast-wide.
“As fishery managers, we’re concerned with the declining abundance of wild steelhead in coastal rivers and recognize that significant changes to the status quo are needed in order to support healthy wild steelhead populations and long-term fishing opportunities,” Coastal Region Fish Program Manager James Losee said in a press release.
“For that reason, this measure prioritizes wild fish by meeting the objectives of the Statewide Steelhead Management Plan while still offering some limited fishing opportunity.”
A number of coastal wild steelhead runs are forecast to return below escapement goals and fail to meet conservation objectives, as they have the past four seasons.
For example, in the Chehalis River, returns are expected to come in 2,000 fish below the escapement goal of 8,600 spawners.
That means the Quillayute River system, which is expected to meet and exceed escapement across its tributaries by 3,376 wild steelhead, is being managed to the same tune of rivers that are experiencing far more disruption and potential collapse.
“Based on public feedback and analysis of catch reductions expected as a result of these regulations, this rule change provides the greatest short-term certainty of meeting our management objectives, outside of a full coast-wide steelhead closure, by limiting encounters while spreading risk and creating opportunity for fishing across the entire run,” Losee said. “Echoing the support we’ve heard from much of the angling and conservation community, we feel confident that this plan will break recent years’ patterns of not meeting escapement goals, while still providing opportunity for fishing.”
The state agency said that the restrictions, along with reduced tribal fisheries, should be enough to reach management goals.
No tribal netting information for the Quillayute River system is available beyond Friday, but I would not expect tribes to forgo opportunity on a river system that is collectively reaching escapement objectives.
Members of the Commission’s Fish Committee were to be briefed and take additional public comment on the steelhead restrictions during a Zoom meeting that was held Friday, Dec. 11 from 1 p.m. – 3 p.m.