|My buddy Art, before he was my buddy Art, with a beautiful swung fish in the newly "no float fishing" zone of the upper Hoh.|
Last week the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife Commission made what has been announced as a historic ruling on the rivers of Washington's coast known lovingly as the "OP". These rules, which include a ban of bait, barbs and killing fish on all rivers, as well as designating a portion of the upper Hoh off limits to fishing from a boat, do come as a strong indication that science is being taken into account in WDFW, something that has not always been the case. However while many seem to be celebrating this as a huge victory, I don't completely share the overjoyed view of these regulations.
As a long time steelheader, former OP guide, and Washington resident for most of my life you would think that I would be singing from the mountain tops with the rest of the internet. While I do agree that it is great to see these changes, and I do think it will have a positive impact on the fishery, it leaves me with a lingering question: What the fuck took so long?
Wild steelhead are as incredible a fish as you can possibly catch on a fly rod, and to me, a fresh native winter steelhead is the pinnacle. No colors but black and silver, see-through fins and a deep rooted anger that they're summer brethren don't share, there is not a fish that I hold in higher regard. As a guide I had the choice of most anywhere I wanted to spend my winters guiding, and I chose to return home to the coasts rain soaked rivers. That is why I find the amount of time that it has taken to make these changes to be so frustrating. Every river that has been listed in the bait/barb/kill ban falls well under escapement every year (meaning there are not enough fish coming back, according to the state, which has a very low bar as far as "enough" is concerned) and it has gotten to the point that the fishery has nearly collapsed for the absolute most no-brained incremental changes to be made.
At what point do things have to get to on the coast for some real decisions to be made and some action to be taken that truly protects fish? Is the state of Washington going to let things go like they did on the Puget Sound rivers to the point that the only option is closing the rivers? This would be the greatest disappointment of my angling lifetime because many of the answers are so clear. Obviously removing nets and dealing with the tribe is the easiest answer. Get rid of the mechanism that remove half of the fish as they enter the river and all anglers are happy. I have witnessed the many different netting techniques employed, including drift netting, and it makes you sick to your stomach. The political nightmare that is this option is more depressing than i can fathom, and I just hope that in my lifetime this is accomplished. There are many other parts to the puzzle that can be picked off in the mean time, from enforcement and poaching to habitat degradation and logging, that offer easier solutions and don't involve federal/state pacts and treaties.
The other part of this ruling that I have noticed online is the continued segregation of steelhead anglers. The comments I have seen from gear and fly anglers about the impact of the boat ban have at times been moronic. The general argument that the spey anglers now have a sanctuary, and this is going to lead to trampled redds and an increased impact on fish is bullshit. Even as a guide who spent a ton of time rowing bobbers around, I have absolutely no prolem with the fish having a boat free zone. It is the only place in the entire state of Washington where fishing is banned from a moving boat. In a state full of fishing regulations that a neanderthal would scoff at for being archaic, it is refreshing to atleast see an attempt at something progressive. If any conservation impact is to ever be had, anglers need to put aside what type of rod they are using, where they are from, and get their shit together to make some reel change.
I am fortunate that i have been able to work with some very good conservation organizations, and have gotten to see a lot of good work done. In no way am I questioning the work of of WSC and the other groups that pushed for this, and I understand the political powers and incrementalism that is conservation. This is a victory, and certainly a step in the right direction, I just wonder how far things are going to have to go before changes are made that actually have teeth. The only solace I have is that I know the fish will always be there, even if it's only a few and we can no longer fish for them. When you hear of fish spawning above the Elwah dam site just down the road, within months of the dams being removed, it eases the pain, and provides some eternal hope that no matter how bad we fuck things up, the fish will come back one way or another.