Monday, November 29, 2010

Of Gray Days and Winter Steelhead

Winter Steelhead caught by Jad Donaldson

It's November 29th but I know that the Pacific northwest is well into the winter season. It's not like it's early or anything it's just I decided I needed to get out of the house today and so I made my first trek over the coast range to look for winter run steelhead. Yes I know it's seems like a pipe dream but it wouldn't matter if all that was present were a run of suckers because I needed to get out on the river.
The winter scene is like one would expect during the early winter steelhead season. It's like you are looking at the world through a gray filter like the kind that might be used on a camera. The low peaks of the coast range had a typical winter fog obscuring their tops as the alders and maples stood in stark contrast to the green firs along the highway. The higher peaks of the coast range showed a trace of a recent Thanksgiving week snow. All the fall leaves have blown away during an earlier fall wind and those that did not make it into a coastal stream were now a ground up mulch along the river. The fall colors of October have been transformed in subdued hues of pale green and misty gray. Yes this is definitely winter.
I have a special steelhead run that has given me success over the last few years and so it was there that I headed.
Fishing in the upper reaches of a coastal river is a solitary experience for the most part and on this "winter" day I fished alone with only the occasional car or truck passing on the road that runs along the river.
In some ways these cold and solitary days on the upper river have an almost overwhelming affect on me,a kind of an anxiety that I cannot explain.
In other ways it is so quiet and still that I do not feel it is proper to talk, to myself of course, in anything other than a whisper.
I took out a new spey rod today hoping for that new rod mojo to reward me and to my utter delight and joy I did have a very strong grab and short run before the fish came unhooked. The sound that an older Hardy fly reel makes as a strong steelhead peels off line during that initial run is the most beautiful music a steelhead fly fisherman can hear. My short encounter with an early winter steelhead made the day instantly brighten.
These winter days are just too short and I cannot seem to get out of bed in the pre-dawn hours so my fishing days is truncated to just a few hours in the afternoon.
I decided to head home as the predicted storm was starting to make it's presence known but I felt that the day had been a success. A new rod and a brief but thrilling encounter with a winter steelhead warmed me like no cup of chicken noodle could even begin to.
With limited numbers of returning steelhead that seem to get fewer every year I count these fleeting encounters a gift and a sign of a hopeful winter to come.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Please Sir Can I Have Some More?

Ah yes! The harvest mentality is alive and well in Oregon and Washington! I can just hear it in Tillamook and Clatsop counties right now. "Endangered fish? We don't care about no stinkin' endangered fish! We want our freezers filled with freezer burned fillets and sodium cured eggs"
Well I sure as hell care about them and know many people who also care about them. This damn hatchery addiction has got to end if we ever want to have wild salmon, steelhead and trout for the future!

From the Oregonian
ASTORIA-- Four counties say a draft federal plan for managing lower Columbia River fish hatcheries is "flawed" and "inadequate."
Officials from Clatsop and Columbia counties in Oregon and Pacific and Wahkiakum counties in Washington wrote a letter to the National Marine Fisheries Service regarding how the federally funded hatcheries will be managed.
The Daily Astorian reports the federal agency's draft environmental statement spells out five potential operating scenarios for the hatcheries funded with money under the Mitchell Act, the law that provides federal dollars for conservation of Columbia River basin salmon and steelhead.
The counties said the 1,100-page document is divisive and assumes that fish production will not increase. It does not acknowledge basin-by-basin efforts to restore fish runs, county officials said, that they claim they were not consulted in the process. They requested that it be withdrawn.
"The history of working together and the values we share for future abundance is too important to leave to this flawed and inadequate document," the letter said.
For 10 years, funding has ranged from $11 million to $16 million for annual hatchery operation funding of 62 programs. They have produced more than 71 million fish each year.
Congress has not appropriated the money to operate the hatcheries next year. 
The five operating and funding scenarios included in the draft consider multiple options but none include increasing fish production.
One scenario discontinues Mitchell Act funding and others cut back the number of fish caught by up to nearly 50 percent. Four options close hatcheries and cut production.
In the zero-funding scenario, production would be cut to about 36 percent of the status quo. Another would operate lower Columbia River hatcheries with stricter standards to protect natural-origin fish, and a third would apply those tougher standards to upper river hatcheries.
Clatsop County Manager Duane Cole said the focus should be on developing resources needed to adequately support the hatchery system. The current funding of $12.5 million should be boosted to $35 million to $40 million, he said.
"The federal government needs to get serious about developing abundance by fully funding the hatchery system," Cole said. "The resources spent on this document should be spent on enhancing the system to restore the fish runs," Cole said.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

The Greatest Generation

Can we ever thank the veterans of World War II enough? Probably not even come close but recently I got a chance to let one of them know how much I appreciate him and the other veterans who saved the world from tyranny and oppression.
I was entering a local variety store near my home and noticed an elderly gentleman wearing a ball cap that said "World War II Vet"
I felt the urge to ask him if I could shake his hand and I wanted to just say thank you to him. Of course I had to wander around the store for several minutes while I got up the nerve to approach this aged vet. Don't ask me why I was nervous because I couldn't tell you, but it took me a few minutes to figure out what it was I wanted to say.
My father was a veteran of that war and perhaps connecting with this man would some how give me a chance to connect with my dad. I did think about my father as I finally decided to go ahead and do what I knew was the right thing to do.
I had thought that he and his wife had slipped out of the store and I had missed my chance as I looked up and down the aisle for the octogenarian gent.
I finally found him and simply said in a voice choked with emotion "Sir, my father was a WWII vet and I was wondering if you would do me the honor by allowing me to shake your hand?" He gladly obliged and said simply "Thank you for noticing son"
Whether we agree with the politics of war or not we can never downplay the importance of our veterans and whenever I get the chance I will say thank you.

Sunday, November 07, 2010

"It's a Money Thing For Me"

This interview appeared on the blog Buster Wants To Fish
You readers can draw your own conclusions

Q & A with a North Umpqua Guide:

Q: I heard through the grapevine that you are advocating bringing hatchery summers back to the fly water. Is that true, and if so, what is your reasoning?

A: Well, I don’t know how much you know about the North Umpqua, but it’s just the last few years that we’ve stopped seeing hatchery summers in the fly water. The hatchery fish that were up there weren’t a problem, since they were main stem spawners. I grew up on the Umpqua, and I can tell you that 99% of Umpqua summer steelhead are creek spawners. The hatchery fish spawned in the main stem, where they were acclimated. Back then you might have seen one or two hatchery fish up at Lee’s pool.
My real issue is I don’t think the wild run can handle all the pressure. I mean, we have more guys coming up here every year. But we only have a couple thousand wild steelhead. Without the hatchery fish, guys are figuring out where the natives hang out and they are pounding on them every single day. Meanwhile, ODFW is planting hatchery summers in places where nobody fishes. I’d say 2/3 of the Umpqua’s hatchery fish aren’t even getting fished for. A third of them are planted below the I-5 bridge. Another third is planted at Whistler’s Bend, and the last third at Rock Creek. But nobody fishes below I-5 bridge. Look at Whistler’s Bend. I drive by there every day, and if you see one guy fishing there it’s a rarity. Two guys I know run down there in the fall. The fly water is the only good summer water, and without some hatchery fish up there, the wild fish take the brunt of the pressure.

Q: So you think that by adding a hatchery program above Rock Creek you’ll be decreasing pressure on the wild fish? I don’t think you could find any examples of that correlation. Hatchery programs result in an increase in angling pressure on wild fish. That’s according to Oregon’s leading biologists and decades of research.

A: I think people are over thinking this whole thing. I mean, do we have a true “wild” run in the Umpqua? With all the hatchery influences over the last century, are these fish really wild?

Q: Umpqua steelhead are wild as they come. Has nobody shared with you the DNA analysis on wild steelhead in Oregon? I can send you the graphs that show the distinct genetic groupings of hatchery and wild fish.

A: Well I haven’t seen what you are talking about, but you just said yourself that the wild fish weren’t harmed by all those decades of hatchery mixing, right? So what’s the problem? Your own data says the wild fish are fine. We had hatchery fish all over up here. All the way up to the dam.

Q: What I’m saying is that there has been very little, if any, genetic introgression from interbreeding. But we know the presence of hatchery adults on the spawning grounds reduces overall numbers of wild fish. So you’re going to have a hard time convincing wild-fish advocates that there is an acceptable risk, at any level.

A: I just don’t see it that way. I don’t think there was much, if any mixing. And if the wild fish are as pure as you say they are, that proves it, right? All I’m saying is if you’re going to have hatchery fish in the Umpqua, put them in the places where people fish! Or get rid of all the hatchery fish, and take the money and use it to repair lost spawning and rearing habitat. One or the other. But it doesn’t make sense to spend all this money and resources on a program that nobody can benefit from.
I’m all for wild fish. But right now we aren’t getting the numbers of wild steelhead we used to see. We’re under 5,000 fish. We need 7,000 to 9,000 fish to handle all the pressure on the fly water. The only way we’re going to get that is if they either let us have some hatchery fish or reclaim the lost habitat. Like Canton Creek. There used to be over a thousand wild fish in there. But it was wiped out when they built that road. It’s never recovered. So if ODFW took all the money from hatcheries and used it to bring back wild fish, I could get behind that.
Now our winter steelhead in the Umpqua really need protection. In the winter we get 10,000 to 14,000 wild fish. And ODFW wants to institute a hatchery program and a kill fishery! All of us guides are against it. ODFW makes no sense. You can’t kill wild fish!

Q: But you just said you’re against killing wild fish, but hatchery programs kill wild fish. Isn’t that an inconsistency?

A: I hear what you’re saying, and I could get behind a wild-only Umpqua. But it’s got to be one or the other. The way things are going now, I can’t make any money. I’m not ashamed to say it’s a money thing for me. If we’re going to have hatchery fish, let’s acclimate a third of them from Wright Creek down and offer people a little more opportunity in the summer. We don’t even need to increase the numbers. Just put them where they can be used. Or get rid of them altogether.

Q: Do you think you would feel the same way about this if you weren’t guiding?

A: I don’t know. The summer hatchery program, the way they’re running it now, just doesn’t make good economic sense. So I think I would be frustrated even if I wasn’t guiding. I’d still be up here in the canyon. It’s the only part of the river you can consistently get fish on dries throughout the summer.

Wednesday, November 03, 2010

Wild Salmonids Catch a Break

I solicited Rob Russell to write an opinion on the current sodium sulfite based bait that are popular here in the Pacific Northwest.
Rob has been at the fore front of this issue and is a real friend of wild salmon and steelhead

Sodium Sulfite - Oregon Has Spoken
by Rob Russell

Regardless of your beliefs, it's time to prepare for a sulfite-free future if you fish cured roe in Oregon. A few recent developments: 1) The Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW) has informed egg cure manufacturers they have until August 2011 to remove sodium sulfite from their products or face regulation. The state agency's declaration was the result of findings in a recent OSU study showing that sulfite-cured bait is harmful to juvenile salmon and steelhead; 2) Oregon's Fish and Wildlife Commission made it clear at its August 2010 meeting that sodium sulfite is not welcome in Oregon's waterways, and that the commission will act swiftly if manufacturers fail to meet the phase-out timeline; and 3) The Department of Environmental Quality (ODEQ) joined ODFW in calling for the August 2011 voluntary phase-out, and also indicated that it will move toward regulation if manufacturers miss ODFW's deadline.
  In a classy move, Oregon's Fish and Wildlife Commission recognized and thanked manufacturers who have worked closely with the state through what has sometimes been a stressful process of study, analysis and decision making. The voluntary phase-out affects many Oregon-grown businesses who must now develop and market new sulfite-free products. So far, a boom in business is buffering manufacturers' concerns. Oregon is in the heat of a good salmon season, looking forward to an even better 2011 season, and manufacturers are enjoying brisk sales. One sporting goods retailer on Oregon's South Coast said he's ordering cases of cure and pure sulfite powder for a hungry public. He speculated that people are stockpiling for the ban. Ya' think?
    It was obvious this year that lots of folks responded in good faith when confronted with the results of the study. I met several salmon anglers this summer and fall who were vocal about having made the switch from sulfite eggs to something less toxic. One prominent Siuslaw River salmon guide made the switch to straight shrimp and had a great season. Of course, many serious egg fishermen stuck with their standard cures. Some were just squeaking in one last season before the switch. A large crowd of others declared the OSU study was bogus, part of a conspiracy by fly-fishers to make Oregon a fly-fishing-only state. Communists, hippies and tree-huggers were also implicated.
   In fact, the original proponent of Oregon's egg-cure study was an avid roe-fisher before the results became public. Once the study showed the deadly effects of sodium sulfite on young salmon and steelhead, he simply eliminated sulfite-cured roe from his arsenal. His public awareness campaign has helped spread the word to anglers throughout the West, but several prominent salmon guides have complained, claiming his underlying goal is to eliminate bait fishing in favor of flyfishing. Regardless of those false allegations, concerned salmon anglers throughout Oregon are working hard to increase awareness of the facts, and the looming deadline.

One important note: Oregon's state agencies have, so far, only addressed concerns related to the health of salmon and steelhead exposed to sulfites. ODEQ has been alerted to possible risks to human health from exposure to sodium sulfite. The human health issues deserve study as well, and may prove to eclipse concerns for salmon and steelhead. In the eternal words of one of Oregon's leading manufacturers, "that stuff will give you cancer." Anyone who deals with sulfites on a regular basis knows how nasty they are. I, for one, am very pleased to have them out of my life. Though they did cure my warts.