By Pat Hoglund
I’m 52 years old and for the better part of the last 30 years I’ve been fishing for salmon and steelhead. I reference that to point out that when I got serious about chasing these fish I was experiencing the tail end of what many people would consider some of the best salmon and steelhead fishing in the past half century. Which is to say, I caught a fleeting glimpse of the best of times.
I still remember my first fishing trip to Tillamook Bay in 1993. The boat I was in landed two 50-pounders (a 52- and 51 pound fall chinook) trolling spinners in the Sheep Corral. In the early ’90s I can remember spring chinook returns to the Willamette River that far exceeded 100,000 springers. I can recall when the Cowlitz River had 20,000 winter steelhead return on a regular basis. There were times on the Wilson River where we’d catch winter chinook, and winter steelhead, in December. On the same day. The fall salmon fishing on the Trask was so good you had to consciously stop fishing so the next guy could punch his tag. I participated in the ocean fishery where you literally could not keep the coho from biting. I remember fishing for spring chinook on the lower Columbia when there were more boats than you could count. And all of them had fish in the box. Those were the best of times, and little did I know at the time, the beginning of the worst of times.
The landscape of salmon and steelhead fishing has been altered in so many different ways it’s hard to make sense of it today. What it boils down to is that we’re seeing fewer fish return to our rivers due to a complexity of circumstances. Ocean conditions play a deciding factor, as does predation, commercial fishing, and politics.
Predation comes in a variety of forms: sea lions, cormorants, terns, and seals. Sea lions consume so many salmon and steelhead that it’s mind boggling. Commercial fishing is an ugly mess, both in Alaska and Canada, and here at home on the Columbia River where gillnets continue to intercept salmon and steelhead at disparaging rates. We’re seeing more and more smolts consumed by sea birds. And the ocean conditions, brought on by global warming, continue to hammer what salmonids that make it to the ocean. And when it comes to politics, we are at the whim of policy decision makers to ensure we have enough fish that can make it to ocean, and survive the gauntlet of issues facing them when they return, so he have fishable numbers. Admittedly, it’s a tough row to hoe and one that might otherwise cause someone to take up another pastime. But if you have any inclination of what fishing was like, then you’re like me and hold out hope for the future.
Fortunately, there are good things coming our way.
We’re starting to see the tide stem on ocean conditions. I recently read a report from Chris Harvey, a research biologist for NOAA, that ocean conditions are improving. He said we’re not out of the woods yet, but he’s seeing several signs of recovery. A byproduct of that is we’re expected to see over 1 million coho return to the Columbia River this summer and fall. That’s enough to make me start polishing spinners.
We recently witnessed legislation that will help curtail sea lion predation. We still need to see more done to impact cormorant predation, but I’m confident it will happen. The needle will move slowly on this, but it will move.
More so than anything else, the attitudes toward hatchery fish are changing. In April-May issue you can read about Ian Courter’s study on the Clackamas River where he proved that hatchery summer steelhead did not negatively impact wild winter steelhead. His study is a step toward changing the minds of those who make policy decision. Because I’m a “the-glass-is-half-full” kind of person, I expect it will lead to creating more opportunity to fish for salmon and steelhead. Because the more hatchery fish we see coming back to our rivers, the more opportunity we’ll have to fish. And isn’t that what we really want?
I’m also encouraged with the Hatchery & Wild Campaign. It’s new and worthy of your time and energy. They have a simple ask: become educated and make your position known with lawmakers and those setting policy. Because the more they hear from people like you and me, the more opportunity we’ll see.
And quite frankly, I’m ready to see a change to the way things used to be.