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Thursday, December 17, 2009

The last day of salmon season

My name is Pat. I am a fishaholic. It has been 24 hours since I caught a fish. I remember it like it was just yesterday.

It was the last day of salmon season. This can be a traumatic time for anyone with a fishing problem. Or those of us who believe that days spent fishing are not counted against your life span.

Conversely, days spent cursing the bought-and-paid-for government do-gooders that close the river to sport fishing while leaving it open to commercial gill-netting, will take years off your life. Maybe that’s what makes the last day of salmon season so special.

You can’t keep another salmon until next spring. I wanted to catch one more. It is a sad fact of life on the river that any fish you catch could be your last.

For example, this year the rivers of the North Olympic Peninsula had a good run of salmon. There were very few kings but a lot of Coho that were so big people thought they were kings.

Most of the Coho came from a fish hatchery. You could tell from the clipped adipose fin. Many of the hatchery fish were bigger than the fish with an adipose fin.   

There is a big debate over the future of hatchery fish on our rivers. The hatchery fish are perceived to be inferior to the native fish. The anti-hatchery cabal claims that hatchery fish are too retarded to spawn or they will spawn with native fish. Either way, shutting down the hatcheries is seen as a solution to the salmon famine.

Native American stories tell of a time before the salmon. That would have been shortly after the Ice Age about 15,000 years ago.

The salmon colonized streams uncovered by the melting ice sheets by straying from one watershed to the next until they had adapted into the “inexhaustible” runs described by the first European visitors to the area.

With the invention of the tin can in 1810, salmon could be preserved for shipment. In 1891 a salmon cannery was built in Port Angeles just west of the Boat Haven marina. It was one of the largest employers in town.

A fleet of set-netters, gill-netters and purse seine fishermen supplied the cannery but the real harvest came from the fish wheels. These were stationary traps that the inventor claimed could catch 14,000 fish a day if it was anchored in the right spot.

When fishing was good, tons of fish had to be thrown overboard since the cannery couldn’t handle them all. By 1895 the output of canned fish, primarily king salmon, began to decline. They started processing smaller species like Coho, Sockeye and Chum. People began to suspect the salmon would soon be as scarce as the beaver that were once so plentiful in our streams.   

The first fish hatchery on the North Olympic Peninsula was built on the Dungeness River in 1905. Since then billions of hatchery fish have been planted into nearly every creek, lake and river.

Which begs the question, after 100 years of fish-hatchery planting, how can you tell the difference between a wild and native fish?  There should be no difference. A properly run hatchery system can mitigate the over-harvest of our salmon and help recover threatened populations of threatened or endangered fish.

Instead the fish hatcheries are becoming endangered species. I just wanted to catch one more hatchery fish to remember the good old days.

It was not going to be easy. The Sol Duc River is usually clear but it was running high and brown on the last day of salmon season. We floated down to the hatchery hole. Fish were rolling everywhere. I was casting a plug like the guys on the bass fishing show. Only instead of bass I hooked into a silver that might have been more than 20 pounds. We didn’t get a good look at it in the murky water. The fish took off downstream in the middle of the current and peeled off fifty yards of 20 pound test line before I could pull the anchor. There was no way we could pull this fish back up the current. We would have to chase it down.

The next thing I knew the fish was clear across the river at the mouth of the fish hatchery creek. I thought the fish might be tired by then and we could scoop him up as we drifted by. That didn’t work.

All of the sudden the fish took off up the hatchery creek. It was embarrassing, or would have been if anyone was around. Fortunately, it was raining and blowing so hard that no one in their right mind would have been crazy enough to be out fishing.

“What should we do?” my friend asked. The fish was still peeling line, climbing the little fish ladder one pool at a time. By now he must have been about 30 yards up the creek. There was no way of knowing since the creek was full of fallen limbs and we couldn’t see a thing.

I told my friend to follow the fish up the hatchery creek to the adult pond and if anyone asked, just say he was related to the governor. I think he was about to get out of the boat and take off up the creek when the fish turned and came back down.

It didn’t work out. We chased the fish further downriver into a brush pile where we lost him.

We sat in the boat in silence. Humiliated, skunked and wet. All from a hatchery fish that was supposed to be a genetic throwback, a form of water pollution.

All I can figure is that people who badmouth hatchery fish have never caught one.

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