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Sunday, January 3, 2010

The history of Olympic Peninsula steelhead

My name is Pat. I am a fishaholic. It has been more than 24 hours since I caught a steelhead. 

I began writing about my fishing problem back in 1996 to help others who might be in the same boat. Since then I have been fired from every newspaper on the North Olympic Peninsula except one, the Peninsula Daily News.

My favorite part of the PDN has to be the feature that describes what was in the paper, 50 and 25 years ago. History has always happened fast on the Olympic Peninsula.

For example, the first European landed here in 1775. The railroad came in 1915. These same historic benchmarks, that occurred less than 150 years apart on the Peninsula, took more than 300 years to happen on the Eastern Seaboard. 

Twenty-five years can be a long time here. In fact, 25 years ago I didn’t think there would be any fish left in 25 years.

The year1984 was not a good time to be on the river. There was still a fish war on. It was a reaction to the Boldt Decision that gave Native Americans 50 percent of the harvestable catch of salmon and steelhead.

The sport fishermen tried to catch the other half, whatever that was. No one cared.

Excess spawners were seen as excess. We didn’t know their rotting carcasses were the key to the health of the entire ecosystem that stretched from the ocean up the river to the mountains. Both sides tried to catch them all before the other side did. The sportsmen with their hook, line and fancy rowboats, the Indians with gillnets and motorboats.

Both sides carried guns. Conflicts were inevitable, especially on the Quileute River.

The Quileute is one of the most popular sport fishing destinations in the country. Runs of ocean-bright salmon and steelhead come up the river in waves, but it can be tough to cast for them with a fleet of drift nets rolling through.

That is why I thought it was so cool that 25 years ago the Peninsula Daily News reported the Quileute tribe was moving their netting schedule from Sunday to Monday through Wednesday,

“In and effort to improve relations.”

It did.

A lot has changed since then. The only guns on the river these days shoot potatoes.

A box of fish hooks comes with a warning label that tells you not to put them in your mouth. It’s an indication of just how stupid the government thinks fishermen really are.

Another example might be the size of the fishing regulations. They have doubled while at the same time the annual limit on wild steelhead for sport anglers went from 30 to one fish a year. Meanwhile, the Quileute tribe’s netting schedule has gone from 3 to 4 1/2 days per week

The decrease in the wild steelhead limit for sport fishing is the result of the wild steelhead being listed as threatened and/or endangered species. The increase in the gillnet fishery is a part of the lost opportunity clause of the Boldt Decision that says if one side doesn’t catch its harvestable share of the fishery, the other side can.  

To confound matters, we are having one of the best runs of steelhead in years. Sport fishermen don’t care how many days a week the Quileute net as long as they can catch their limit.

These are mainly hatchery fish. Sport fishermen can still keep 30 hatchery fish per year. Hatchery fish have gotten a bad rap in recent years for being small. We have a thing for big fish here. The 20-pound steelhead is the holy grail of the fishery, but not all of them grow to be that big.

The first historical reference to steelhead on the Olympic Peninsula comes from the Press Expedition. They spent the hard winter of 1890 pushing a leaky barge up the Elwha River until they ran out of whiskey.

Even back then, before there were any loggers, dams, fish hatcheries, gillnets or fishing guides to blame, steelhead were hard to catch.

It wasn’t until March that James Christie of The Press Expedition got into the fish.  He caught 14 steelhead, in one hole. The steelhead, (they had to be wild) ranged from 22 to 26 inches long. That seems odd since March is supposed to be when the big steelhead, 20- and 30-pounder’s run. Christie’s catch of steelhead, while impressive, looks like something you’d catch out of one of today’s hatchery runs. 

To put this into perspective, last weekend, about 110 years after the Press boys, I caught 14 steelhead in the Queets, rangin in length from 22 to 36 inches.

Most of these fish came from the Salmon River, a tributary of the Queets.

The Quinault tribe runs a hatchery up the Salmon. They use native broodstock. The salmon and steelhead are big. In fact the only way to tell the Salmon River hatchery fish from a native fish is the size of the dorsal fin.

The Queets is within Olympic National Park, which does not allow you to keep a native fish. The Salmon River hatchery fish do not generally have a clipped adipose fin like hatchery fish are supposed to, so the Park had to come up with another system to identify natives.

 This is called credit card fishing. That is, to retain a fish, the height of the dorsal fin must be less than the width of a credit card. Even without a credit card it’s easy to tell a native from a hatchery fish. The natives have a full dorsal fin.

The hatchery fish have worn or partially missing dorsal fins. Unfortunately, some of the hatchery fish are so large that their dorsal fin is wider than a credit card even though half of it is missing.

This can lead to a crisis in the steelheader’s soul. You must release hatchery fish, back into the waters of a National Park where it can be caught and kept by Native Americans drifting gillnets through the holes with the aid of jet sleds.

That may be why I don’t recommend fishing the Queets to anyone. The clay banks keep the river gray and unfishable most of the steelhead season and the rules are enough to make you chew on a mouthful of fishhooks. Somewhere, James Christie is rolling over in his grave.

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