by Carmen Macdonald
Last weekend I was invited on a camp trip over on the Deschutes River. Amongst the group there were bird dogs and chucker hunters, trout flies and trout anglers and steelhead flies, gear and steelhead anglers.
I went loaded for bear, which for summer steelhead included about seven Blue Fox Vibrax Bullet spinners in size 4, about six steelhead jigs and four floats. All my gear fit in the pockets of my jacket. I love these fish.
On Saturday, while winter steelhead anglers descended upon west side rivers in droves, I went 2 for 2 on summer steelhead. On Sunday, my buddy and I went 5 for 6. Of 8 fish hooked, five of them chased down the spinner and smashed it.
There was one other truck with three anglers that we saw on the river. It was simply awesome.
The more I think about summer steelhead, the more amazing I recognize them to be. Early anglers on the Deschutes will begin fishing the lower river in mid-July. Here it was late January and I was still on the same fish, fish that still cartwheel across the water, maybe with not the same enthusiasm, but pretty darn close.
Similar fisheries used to be available in many rivers much closer to home in the Willamette Valley. The Sandy, Clackamas and Molalla Rivers used to have summer programs that ascended far into the mountains. There are still summer programs in the Clack and Sandy, but they're a shadow of their former selves and specifically try to limit the presence of the fish in the basins. The Molalla program was eliminated in total.
Much of the driving force behind the downsizing or elimination of these programs was a study authored by Kathryn Kostow of ODFW. The study called out summer steelhead as having a negative impact on wild winter steelhead due to a "density dependent" effect. The summers, it was surmised, out competed the winters.
Programs fell like dominoes in the 1990's. License sales dropped by 80,000 between 1993 and 1998 (silver salmon were a big part of this).
Oddly enough, last week the Oregon Chapter of the American Fisheries Society held a Hatchery and Wild Symposium in downtown Portland. I would have loved to have been there, but could not attend. A few friends of mine were in the audience.
Kostow was one of the speakers. She spoke to some of the density dependent relationships that were part of the original work on the Clackamas. However, this time it ended differently. My friends in the audience said you might have needed to know in advance exactly to what she was referring, but she offered a sentence. I won't quote because I wasn't there, but it amounted to-- it didn't work out on the Clackamas.
This after 15 years of destruction of fisheries. This after many citations of the Clackamas study to bolster arguments against hatchery fish in so many places. This after a very defensive 2012 memo saying the Clackamas was rebounding.
It's not. We have simply lost one of the best fisheries Oregon had to offer...make that numerous fisheries.
I've ground this axe pretty hard. Right now I want to say that having never met Kostow, many I know and have spoken with consider her a most excellent person. I do not want to take that away. I do want to point out that science is made up of people. People are not infallible. People are not without bias. People make mistakes.
In this specific instance, we've crushed some fisheries for no benefit at all. We've made a mistake.
The earliest summer steelhead I've caught in the Willamette system was caught on February 17th. That hatchery fish would have proceeded upriver and spawned the following year, providing somewhere around 12-months of opportunity (in this specific case, the fish was barbecued in short order :) It used to be said that you could catch steelhead on the Clackamas every single month of the year between the overlap of winters and summers. That wasn't some myth...it was fact.
So as we are now crowding anglers into fewer and fewer places....so much so that groups like TU are hinting at some form of limited entry....I have to wonder.
How many mistakes have we made? How many towns took the hit? How many burger joints like the one that used to be in Estacada are gone? How many connections to fish and the places they inhabit have been terminated?
And what are we going to do we do about it?
And for a capper on weird sense of timing, just before I can hit the upload button on this blog, here's what pops into my email. In case you can't read the small type in the bottom middle it says, "Participating angler-sponsors assist Russian scientists in the collection of scale and tissue samples, and tagging of all caught-and-released fish. This is a high level scientific project, and all costs associated with sponsoring are tax deductible."
Is this where steelhead fishing is heading? Where the very wealthiest anglers looking for a fishing trip and a charitable donation wing on over to Russia to jam on the Kamchatka?
To quote Ferris Bueller, "If you have the means, it's so choice." I would agree. Insane trip that I'd love to take. I don't look cross at anyone who would take this trip. I do look cross on those who would perpetuate a false shortage of fish and opportunity on the premise that, at least on the Clackamas River, we're gaining something positive for wild fish.