By Roger Phillips of the Idaho Statesman
California is now closed to the harvest of wild steelhead trout.
The state closed the Smith River in Northern California to harvest. That was its last remaining river where anglers could keep wild steelhead. It's about time. Hopefully Oregon and Washington will take notice that wild steelhead are too valuable to harvest. Idaho long ago came to that conclusion, and quit harvesting wild steelhead statewide in 1987. Since then, Idaho's wild steelhead returns have stabilized and in some years flourished, but we still have a way to go before they can be removed from threatened status.
While some people may quibble over how much progress has been made, things have improved. About 12,000 wild steelhead crossed Lower Granite Dam in 1993, the first year wild and hatchery fish were counted separately. Between 1993 and 1997, the year wild steelhead were listed as threatened, an average of 9,243 wild steelhead crossed Lower Granite, which is the last dam the fish cross before reaching Idaho.
From 1998 to 2009, wild steelhead returns over Lower Granite averaged 38,564 fish. The peak was 76,000 in 2009. That's not to say Idaho's steelhead management is a success story. There's more work to be done before wild fish can be removed from threatened status, but it shows releasing them can make a difference in the size of the returns. Idaho also has thriving steelhead fishing. There's occasional bellyaching by someone who can't take home a wild steelhead, but most people have accepted harvesting hatchery fish and releasing wild ones. It's really a no-brainer. Wild steelhead are among the most prized game fish in the world, and it's not because they make great table fare.They're much more valuable than a meal. Wild steelhead are genetic gold. Hatchery steelhead are raised under homogeneous conditions, so young fish adapt to survive in hatcheries. Wild fish evolve to inhabit specific rivers, and their genetics and life history can differ greatly between watersheds. Washington and Oregon have river systems with healthy wild steelhead runs and fish managers there have the backward notion that because runs are healthy, wild steelhead harvest should be allowed. Many of those rivers also have hatchery fish, and limiting harvest to those fish seems painfully obvious.Oregon and Washington have reduced their wild steelhead harvest in recent years, but more to cover their own tails than to protect healthy wild runs. I've traveled to Oregon and Washington to fish for steelhead, but have actually done better staying home and fishing Idaho rivers. I love both those states and would like to fish there more often, but I am not seeing the type of management that would make me want to spend my time and money there. The most expensive fishing trip I ever made was to northern British Columbia to catch wild steelhead. I gladly released every one I caught, which was the law. As far as I am concerned, the only place where harvesting wild steelhead can be justified is Alaska.
Alaskans take their salmon and steelhead management very seriously and have a long history of protecting fish. The Situk is among the healthiest steelhead rivers remaining in the world, and it has all wild fish. The river is only 22 miles long, but in some years it accounts for nearly half the steelhead caught in Alaska.
Fisheries managers there allow anglers to keep only two steelhead per year on the Situk, and the ones kept must be at least 36 inches. To put that in perspective, many anglers go years or an entire lifetime without harvesting a 36-inch fish. Even with those tight restrictions - or maybe because of them - steelhead anglers travel from all over the world to fish the Situk. Wild steelhead are prized by anglers who want to catch a native fish in its natural habitat. Wild steelhead populations are a fraction of their former abundance, but they're resilient fish. If we protect habitat, clear migration routes and stop harvest, they can rebound.
Granted, the first two are easier said than done, but all the third takes is a little political will and common sense. Some of the most famous steelhead waters in the Northwest are limited to catch and release, and those places have become destinations. Recent history has shown that where healthy runs of wild fish return, anglers will follow.