Conservation

Signs of Life

SEEKING WILD STEELHEAD ON THE SKAGIT RIVER

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The cold is getting to me. Earlier today, standing in Northwest Washington State’s Skagit river, it wasn’t so bad. With some sun coming through the trees, it almost felt like it was getting warmer. That helped. But, now, here in this motel room, it feels like I’ll never warm up. The sheet-thin fire retardant comforter isn’t the least bit comforting. The one and only wall-mounted radiant heater is cranked, but you’d never know it. That thing is a lost cause. So, another cold night. Long johns don’t fail me now.

This morning the old-timer crew at the cafe was talking about how they figured it’s been 20 years since Concrete saw a cold snap this severe. It’s been in the teens for about a week now. Exceptionally cold for Washington. And clear. These are less-than-ideal steelheading conditions.

The cold is getting to the fish too. That’s what Bill McMillan is saying in the morning. We’re walking along the river near his place on the Skagit. He’s lived here since 1998. Bill is a lifelong fisherman and a renowned conservationist. He’s acting as our guide/biologist/historian. He brings us up to speed on the Skagit’s history, the steelhead and his thoughts on their recovery. Overall, he’s encouraged. He’s done a lot of stream surveying and seen a lot of new fish spawning in the tributaries. He’s optimistic for the fish. These cold snaps though, they’re hard on the early run steelhead. Tributaries like Savage Creek become too shallow for the fish to access from the river’s main channel. So, they end up extending their stay in the Skagit. Then, those steelhead get fished hard, especially with all the traffic the river sees leading up to the river’s closure at the end of January. This is hard on the fish. Then again, it’s an unusually cold year and next winter Savage Creek could be a go.

Bill’s quick to mention Finney Creek too. Finney sees more late-run steelhead and Bill says he’s seen a lot of new steelhead spawning there. He smiles talking about it.

“Being able to watch the magic, of a place like Finney Creek recover, just a mile from my house,” Bill says. “That habitat was degraded by years and years of logging, but never the less, it’s recovering because we made some management changes in recent years. And today, it has one of the largest spawning populations that’s it’s had in probably the last 50 or 60 years.”

These fish have come a long way.

In 2007 the wild steelhead in the Skagit were listed as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act. It was estimated as few as 2,500 fish remained in the river. The Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife closed the river in 2010 during the later-winter months. Since then anglers have been limited to fishing for steelhead from December 1 until January 31 every year. But now, estimates put almost 8,500 steelhead in the Skagit. In 2016, the WA DFW submitted a plan to NOAA that calls for the opening of a catch-and-release winter/spring season on the Skagit. There’s talk that it could happen as soon as next year, but NOAA has the final say and as of now, they’ve made no indication about their timeline for reviewing DFW’s plan.

So, we wait and see. And shiver.

Now, we’re riding shotgun with Jerry French. His buddy Trevor Covich is manning the outboard, pinning the jet boat toward the next cobblestone bar. Jerry has been fishing the Skagit for more than 30 years. He’s credited for helping invent the Intruder fly and popularizing double-handed Spey casting. Jerry’s a true OG Skagit local. He guided on this river for a long time, but stepped away from guiding this season. He’s loving just fishing for himself. And he says he’d love to see the river open for February, March and April next year. He thinks the fish are doing well and catch-and-release anglers should get a go at it. Though, he admits, considering how much steelhead fishing has grown just in the time the river has been closed, he knows opening it up will inevitably lead to a lot of pressure on the fish.

“It’ll be a zoo,” Jerry says.

That’s Joe Rossano’s big worry. He’s been fishing the Skagit just about as long as Jerry. He was there during the early days of developing double-handed technique and gear. He’s just as much a steelhead junkie as Jerry, but he’s not so sure about opening the river yet. He’s really concerned it will see too much traffic and put too much stress on a still recovering steelhead population. Joe’s also taking all the other fish in the system into consideration.

“To me, the state of recovery isn’t just what you’re seeing in the spring,” Joe says. “And without certain conditions to ensure that there would not be over-harvest, or over-incidental mortality inflicted by us, I would like to see it stay closed.”

There’s the two sides of the argument, coming from two sides of the river. Should it be opened or closed? Are these fish abundant enough to handle a catch-and-release season? Or do they need more time? That’s what everyone is talking about out there, while they’re standing in the cold, waiting for some kind of sign.

Fishing for steelhead is certainly a practice in patience.

“I think it’s persistence,” Brandon Sly says, mid-cast.

Brandon works at the Confluence Fly Shop in Bellingham. In the winter, he spends his time off on the Skagit. Always. All season. Back in the shop, he says customers always ask for tips on catching steelhead. His tip: go fishing. There’s nothing more to it. In a way, it’s an odds game. The more time you have on the water, the better your odds. Brandon stays persistent and catches fish… sometimes.

But, sometimes is respectable when fishing for steelhead. Even sometimes isn’t easy.

“Basically you’re picking the least productive way to catch one of the rarest fish around here,” Brandon says. “You know you’re not gonna catch one every time, but when you do there’s no feeling like it. The payoff is huge.”

Eric Jackson agrees.

Eric is a pro snowboarder with a steelheading problem. While most of his winter is spent in the mountains, he makes time to get onto the river every chance he can. He recently moved to Bellingham and this was his first full-season fishing the Skagit. He got one: a chrome-bright hen, all shoulders, his first Skagit Steelhead.

“I’ll never forget that fish,” Eric says.

And almost simultaneously John lands one no more than 100 yards from the back door of his dad’s house. A beauty wild buck. Right at the top of the run, on Savage Bar.

“We got lucky boys,” John says. “And luck is better than anything.”

Following in his dad’s footsteps, John is also a well-respected conservationist and an expert steelheader. His official title is Science Director for Trout Unlimited’s Wild Steelhead Initiative. He lives out on the Olympic Peninsula now, but is here to fish with his dad for a couple days.

Back in Bill’s office/den/inner sanctum, John and Bill are warming up by the wood stove. We’re surrounded by books, awards, relic reels, skulls, all manner of specimen, hackle, tackle and a variety of fish art. Bill’s telling us about how he got involved in conservation. How it was the work of Roderick Haig-Brown that inspired him to take up the fight. And how he remembers something Roderick said: “Once you dedicate yourself to conservation you should expect more defeats in your lifetime than wins.”

“Same could probably be said about steelheading,” I think to myself.

Bill continues: “But, you’re only being defeated by consideration on the temporality of our human view of things. In the long-term, the fish themselves, they don’t care what we do. They don’t care about whether nature or human beings have nearly diminished them to the point of complete extinction at times.”

What he’s saying is that the steelhead will survive. Adaptation is written into their natural history.

“In the 70s there was this old bumper sticker that read: ‘Nature bats last.’ That’s absolutely the truth,” Bill says. “There’s always going to be fish. We’ll probably go before they do.”

But that isn’t to say these fish aren’t worth protecting. Bill makes it very clear that the things he’s seen on the Skagit lately, the recovery he’s witnessed, it’s really encouraging and it leads him to believe that we can affect change. And because we can we should. He’s talking about Finney Creek again and all the reds he’s counted, all the fish he’s seen return to that little tributary.

“This is so exciting, so stirring,” Bill says. “To see–after a lifetime of working to maintain the ability for wild critters to remain wild–that they will do just that, even in spite of me, that keeps me working.”

Even subtle signs of life are significant in conservation work… and in steelheading. Especially here on the Skagit river.

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