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Tuesday, January 7, 2014

The Best Bait

It was daylight on the river on what might have been the shortest day of the year. The sky was so dark the sun did not show until ten in the morning and it seemed to be getting dark by noon. We were fishing for that rarest of fish the hatchery winter run steelhead.  These are the only steelhead that you can catch and eat this time of year. Hatchery fish are identified by a clipped adipose fin near the tail. Steelhead with all of their fins intact must be released under the terms of the fish war that has been raging on the west end of the Olympic Peninsula since the 1974 Boldt Decision.  In this conflict each side tries to catch their fair share of a fast disappearing run of fish.  One side uses a hook and line, the other uses a gill net. Both sides blame the other not catching as many as they used to.  If truth is the first casualty of war it is sure to be buried in a mass grave somewhere out on the river. The fact is that the best steelhead fishing in Washington is on the lower Quinault River which has been managed as a commercial net fishery by the Quinault Nation. How can this be? They have fish hatcheries which pump millions of fish from native stock into the system.

Meanwhile, for the second year in a row the hatchery steelhead have failed to return to the rest of our river systems.  It is a sad truth that runs of hatchery fish always fail after you fire the hatchery workers and stop feeding the fish. Government efforts to restore these fish have involved buying real estate from willing sellers and building log jams with predictable results. Somehow these runs of steelhead were supposed to restore themselves on their own without any hatchery plants. They have not.  Millions of dollars of fishing license revenues have been spent with no appreciable results.

 Meanwhile we fish through the peak of the steelhead season still hoping to catch one. The variety of lures and bait employed in this effort is truly mind-boggling. It is said that whoever has the biggest tackle box wins but that is not necessarily true. All you need is the right bait, live sand shrimp. These are sold in bait shops and gas stations where you find them or not at all.  As luck would have it there were no sand shrimp one weekend. I told a buddy to bring a dozen shrimp on his next trip out west but somehow the message got garbled in translation. Instead he brought a dozen dozen or 144 dozen sand shrimp. That's a lot of sand shrimp. Many were females with little egg clusters which make the very best bait. I had to keep them alive. For that I needed some fresh sea water. Getting sea water was not as easy as it might seem. The surf was running high. Standing in the ocean surf with hip boots and a five gallon bucket was a life threatening adventure. I was almost swept off my feet and drug out to sea. I dumped the surviving sand shrimp into the bucket. The water turned black. Some of the sand shrimp revived. I put them a cooler loaded with moss. There they kept very well. For five days while the rain fell and the rivers turned brown and un-fishable. Eventually I released the rest of the shrimp back into the ocean. Proving the old adage that sometimes even the best bait is not good enough. 

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