Monday, May 4, 2009
Hoh Spring Steelhead
The Death of a Steelhead
It was another tough week in the news. Anglers from far and wide were shocked and dismayed by the tragic death of a large wild steelhead on the Hoh River. The fish’s assailant was a fly fisherman with no prior fishing incidents or known motives. He claimed to have been innocently casting his spey rod for 10 years in the Hoh River without a bite when tragedy struck. The fish was hooked on the fly. A struggle ensued. While the results of an necropsy are not available at this time, witnesses claimed the fish was dragging the unlucky fly fisherman around the river for an estimated 45 minutes.Once the fish was on the beach, the real trouble started.
In a recent article in the PDN [“Monster steelie causing a ruckus,” March 1], the angler described the incident. He said the “trauma stress and emotional scarring put a knot in his stomach.” And that was only the beginning. The steelhead slaying was witnessed by a number of fishing guides who immediately blabbed to the Internet. This set off a hate mail inquisition and debate over the catching of wild steelhead.
The decision to release or kill a wild steelhead is not to be taken lightly.Steelhead fishing is not like other sports. If you make a hole in one on the golf course, folks will congratulate your good fortune. If you catch the biggest steelhead on the Olympic Peninsula, people want to hole-in-one you. In steelhead fishing, threats of bodily harm are the sincerest form of flattery. So it is with these reservations and in the interest of responsible journalism that I must confess my own role in the untimely demise of this fish.
It is only now that I can reveal the real reason the fly fisherman was able to land the monster steelhead. It was tired. My boat had already caught and released that same fish earlier that day.It was a day I’ll never forget. I was fishing my own custom lures made entirely out of depleted uranium when my buddy hooked the fish. He’s in the Federal Witness Protection Program and does not wish to be identified for the safety of his family and loved ones. I knew it was a big fish, but then I’m a guide. I routinely weigh fish without even seeing them by calculating the arc of the rod, the speed of the current and the blood-alcohol level of the angler.
Eventually, we tired the brute. I tried to snap a photo of the monster before I released it back into the river — but darn, the battery on my camera was dead. I was very proud of releasing that fish. I used to enjoy beating fish over the head with a club. To me, fishing was cruelty to animals. That’s why I liked it, and besides if you hit a person over the head with a club you go to jail. My therapist said it was a transference thing, so I punched her.
It never occurred to me that a trophy fish I released back into the river would be caught by a fly fisherman. I thought it would be killed in a gillnet. All of our rivers are commercially gillnetted. Under the terms of the Boldt decision, the fish harvest is divided equally between tribal and sport anglers. If one side fails to catch its share, the other side can. That means every steelhead caught and released by a sport angler is one more that can be caught in a gillnet. It’s enough to make me emotionally scarred.___
The Angler’s Year
You probably thought the State of Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife didn’t have a sense of humor but they must. It has to be more than coincidence that the steelheader’s year begins and ends on April Fools Day. That’s when your old fishing license expires.
April first is a time to pause and reflect on the year that has passed. That is a big job for a fishing guide like me. I fish 500 days a year. A lot of stuff happens so I can only skip over the highlights of one fishing guide’s yearly journal.
Last April Fools Day began with the topless hunt for Bigfoot. Things went okay at first, until the expedition ran out of sun screen. I was left holding the bag. It was full of the collected hair balls and dung samples that were supposed to finance the expedition further into the wilderness so if you know anyone who’d like to purchase a sack of Sasquatch dung, please contact the number at the bottom of this column.
The hunt for Bigfoot was doomed to failure. I was really only trying to prove the creature didn’t exist, to save it from the fate of other creatures that went extinct shortly after they were discovered, like the hundred pound salmon and the Olympic Mountain moonshiner.
All I got for my trouble was a crummy bug insecticide endorsement deal. I’m not sure why someone would think I’d need bug proof underwear in the first place. Is it something in my writing?
Maybe the bug proof underwear would have come in handy during my alien abduction last summer up along the upper Hoh River. Those little buggers play rough. I woke up the next morning with what felt like a bad sunburn, a headache and a big burn mark with some rocks around it in a circular pattern right in front of my tent. It was a close call.
The next thing I know some nature Nazi forest rangers showed up and accused me of having an illegal campfire. It’s a sad day when an honest fisherman takes the rap for a pack of pesky aliens that can’t read a “No Campfires” sign.
Then there was the rigged steelhead fishing derby. I won it with a six pound spawn-out. Only to be accused of keeping the fish alive in a bathtub full of personal enlargement solution before “catching” it, a practice since banned under the Geneva Convention of fishing.
The low point had to be losing Miss Polly. I was taking her out at Oil City. That was a big mistake. We had no business even being in Oil City on a Saturday night after dark. The place was like Sodom and Gomorrah with a hangover. There was a lot of tension and then something snapped. Polly slid down the bank and out into the Hoh River like a runaway fish duck, headed to the open Pacific Ocean.
It was a time to pause and reflect. Should I give up being a fishing guide? The old guide always told me it was a good way to die broke and alone.
Should I let Miss Polly get washed out to sea. To be cast up by the surf on a lonely wilderness beach, then flown out by the Coast Guard as part of a trash removal exercise in the spring.
With Polly gone I would have a chance at a real career like the industrial hair removal franchise my brother in law always raved about. No.
I fetched Polly out of the river. It was good to be alive.
Someone once wrote, I guess it was me, that history is a recurring process of decay. Nowhere is that more evident than on Earth Day. I remember the very first Earth Day. Fishing must have been slow. I was in school. They herded us in to watch a movie about how the Earth was being poisoned to death.
That was good news to us. At the time I thought we were all going to get blown up in a 4-22-09 Earth Day
nuclear war. Either way I figured we could get out of school. Little did I suspect what killing the Earth would do to the fishing.
We need to look no further than the death of the Dungeness River to realize that our own species could be running out of time.
Back at the first Earth Day the Dungeness River was full of fish.
April on the Dungeness was famous for having the best spring steelhead fishing in the State of Washington. Steelhead punch-card records, (courtesy of Mr. Stan Fouts) show the Dungeness was cranking out between 2 and 5 thousand steelhead per year. To put these figures in their historical perspective, 3 steelhead showed up at the Dungeness Fish Hatchery this year.
May brought a run of spring Chinook salmon to the Dungeness. These are the “First Salmon.” They were prized by the Native Americans for their oil rich meat. This was more than native superstition. The benefits of fish oil are only now being discovered by modern western medicine.
People used to be able to fish for spring Chinook in Dungeness Bay. This was a shallow water fishery in the protected waters of the bay. You could soak a crab pot and dig some clams to go with the salmon.
June brought the spring flood as the snow pack from the Olympic Mountains melted away. The spring Chinook and summer steelhead used the high brown water to swim high up into the mountains By July the Dungeness had dropped and cleared enough so you could fish the upper canyons. This wasn’t exactly fishing, more like rock climbing while holding a fishing pole in your teeth. The Dungeness flows so fast through the brushy headwaters that the only way to land a steelhead was to jump in and swim after it. You had to want them.
Every other August, hundreds of thousands of humpies with a number of renegade Sockeye ran up the Dungeness. Anyone with a sharp stick for a spear could fill up a smokehouse. Humpy-bumpers from all over converged on the Dungeness so thick you could not buy a loaf of bread or a fish hook in Sequim.
September ushered in a run of silvers that came up the river in waves all the way into December. They ran with shoals of fall Chinook, dog salmon, dolly-varden, sea-run cutthroat and even sea-run brook trout that had somehow filtered down from the high lakes to return as trophy 8 pounders.
The Dungeness has changed since the first Earth day. The river and the bay it runs into are closed to fishing, clamming and crabbing most of the year. The clams are polluted. The crabs are fished out. The fish are threatened, endangered or just plain extinct.
The fish of the Dungeness fed more than just people, birds and animals. The spawned out salmon carcasses washed back down, fertilizing the river, the forests and the bay in a cycle of life we destroyed before we even understood it.
Those who ignore history are doomed to watch television. Soon, TV could be the only place you’ll see a fish._____