Friday, November 14, 2014

The Steelhead Paradox

Back ya go buddy.

It takes about 3 second looking at my blog to understand that I like steelhead.  The salted cousin of the state fish of my home state of Washington, they captivate me in a way that no other fish has.  It is clear that I am not alone in this view, and this was again drilled into my head as I opened the most recent issue of the drake.  Two huge articles, again, about west coast steelhead.  One that is close to a hot spotting article, the kind that the Drake used to never write (I'll hit this point some other time) and the second a great article about the NU and it's protector.  If I were a journalist I'd tell you how many pages were committed to Steelhead over the last few issues of the Drake and other fishing mags (are there any others?), but I'm a blogger so I just bitch about things with little to no real evidence.  To that accord the press that steelhead have been getting lately is tremendous.

It kills me to see it to some extent.  Shiny pages of hero shots and poetic stories about freezing cold fishing and listerine green water.  Steelhead are without a doubt the hottest thing going in fly fishing, and the marketing world clearly recognizes this.  Promotion of these majestic fish comes in all forms from the articles to clothes and reels and social media, they are everywhere.  Working as a steelhead guide for several years puts me in the cross hairs of responsibility too, along with running a blog and being a vocal proponent of their protection, i recognize my role in the pressure.  I have been a steelhead fisherman for a very short time in the big picture, and the 12 years that I have fished for them the pressure has grown exponentially.

The downside to all of this pressure is easily observed if you float any big western steelhead river.  Pull outs are lined with trucks, boat ramps are crammed with trailers and rooms are hard to  come by when rivers are dropping.  This pressure has the obvious downsides of fish mortality and user of the resource, along with simply not being able to find water to fish.  Days that I have to give up numerous good runs because of pressure are not yet the norm, but are certainly happening more often than when I started steelhead fishing not that long ago.

If there is one thing I have found as a fishing guide and in my professional career it's easy to sit around and point fingers and blame without trying to fix the problem.  Sure mag's, guides, shops, social media and a litany of other sources are responsible for this popularity growth, but what good can come from it?  How can we use this popularity to help the fish that we all love so much?

I think the best possible outcome from this recent fame is going to be protection.  Every time I float into a run that i love and see anglers there I remind myself that if steelhead didn't have the celebrity-like following they wouldn't have the protection, and every last one would likely be removed by one method or another from their native rivers.  Rivers without native fish are substantially easier for politicians to molest, and make hard decisions disappear.  The steelhead creates a symbol for protection that many can rally behind.  I certainly don't know the answers to the many questions this side of steelhead fishing creates, but it's something that I continuously think about.  The more people that are fishing for these great fish the more opportunities there are to not only help them survive but thrive into the future.

I wrote the above piece and sent it to my buddy Mills to take a look and we bounced around some ideas.  Here are a few of the ways that I am personally trying to help solve the problem.  Let me know what you do to help steelhead!

- Donate $ and time.  A couple of the org's that I have donated time or money to are the Hoh River Trust, Native Fish Society and Wild Steelhead Coalition.  TU seems to be doing some good stuff with their Wild Steelheaders United as well.

-  Education:  I don't guide for steelhead anymore, and I would like to say it's because I chose some holier-than-though path, but the reality is I have a daughter and I want to spend time at home.  That being said, whenever steelhead come up while I am trout fishing I am informed about the facts of the fish and educate my guests to the best of my ability.  Getting people on a national level to understand the perils of these fish is paramount to their success.

- The Little Stuff:  There are a ton of things you can do while fishing for them that all add up to a stronger survival rate.  Keep wild fish in the water, bonk hatchery fish, don't take a picture of every last fish you catch, use a net for landing.  These things along with many others all contribute to survival rate and make a difference with every fish you are fortunate enough to catch.


  1. Joe,
    I think you posed a question here that a lot of us have been pondering for a while. Personally, I don't think the popularity of steelhead will equate to any benefit to the species. While I still maintain that well performed C&R angling has minimal impacts on steelhead, what it does impact most acutely is the quality of the angling experience...which I think is being compromised in many places now...a certain coastal Washington location you know well comes to mind. I cringed this morning when Angling Trade put up a photo of the new Fishpond rep hoisting a steelhead way up out of the water with nary a drip of water coming off it...haven't we learned not to do this by now? The fact that Tom Bie (who is on record as being a steelhead addict and I believe knows better) would publish what equates to a hot spotting article for a river with a run of fish that number in the hundreds and is on the brink of total closure sent me into a fury...I've never been a Drake subscriber but if I was I would have cancelled my subscription.

    If you look at the membership logs of conservation groups and at the people who are busting their tails to conserve steelhead I think you'd find the same people that were there before the "craze" struck. It is popular, however, for one to put on the hat and act like they care about steelhead conservation which doesn't really serve any real benefit.

    The fly fishing industry and marketers have utilized steelhead/spey/two-handed casting over the past 6 or 7 years as a great way to help make it through a tough retail environment in a very poor economy. It's a perfect setup...a fish shrouded in mystique and angling lore that most of the US population has easy access to and one that utilizes techniques and tactics that require new equipment and training than most fly fisherman of the time period currently owned. Push that and profit...and they have. The problem is that they've really done nothing in return for steelhead...except for one or two major players that are well known for their conservation based mentalities.

    I"m not sure what the end game here really is...more of the same most likely.

  2. @BG, very good points. I certainly agree with you and should have mentioned that not only was the drake article hot spotting, but showing off such a sensitive system.

    I really like your point about the conservation groups. Interesting to see who's actually donating and who's just wearing the hat.

    Fly Fishing Marketing drives me insane, and you're spot on about the selling of new two handed rods. Just like tenkara and all of the other new crap, I wonder when enough is enough. "growth for the sake of growth is a cancerous madness" comes to mind.

    Shoot me an email if you can,, would love to talk more about this.


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