Two Minutes to Midnight

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Two Minutes to Midnight
Bill Herzog

By Bill Herzog, Freshwater Editor

The Doomsday Clock—charming name—is a symbolic clock used by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists to represent a countdown of sorts to potential global man made catastrophe. In September of 1953, that clock reached two minutes to midnight (midnight means, of course, the end of all days), the closest it’s ever been to midnight, when the Soviets and the U.S. pulled out their measuring tapes and set off H-bomb tests days apart. History tells us that relations get much better over the years, but at that moment it seemed imminent. Disaster was on the way, like a fat kid running downhill. 

The Doomsday Clock has become a universally recognized metaphor for when things are going remarkably terrible, the watch is on for when things culminate in elimination. Think bug/windshield. Fellow steelheaders, especially those of us who have a torrid lifelong affair with summer runs, join me in the panic room for about another eight hundred words. Let’s have a look at what happened (as I write this, at the latter part of September, happening.) coast wide to our slimy babies during 2019. What few came back represents possibly the worst returning numbers since WWII. Certainly, the foulest returns of summer steelhead many river systems have experienced since any of us have been paying attention. And it’s been going in the negative direction for too many years in a row not to start hoarding rations. Numbers don’t lie. 

We are two minutes to midnight, kids. What is happening?

Starting south, the legendary North Umpqua, the gold standard of summer steelhead and its year after year of strong, mostly wild fish are a no show. This summer, so many folks reporting empty runs and few fish. Steamboat Creek, the watched refuge which harbors the majority of wild steelhead for the North Umpqua, has only a quarter of its normal run back to its sanctuary pools. Hatchery fish are nearly absent. The Clackamas, which quenches the summer run thirst of Portlandia with a wonderful run of hatchery summers has been nearly barren. The Cowlitz, which gets 600,000 summer smolt plants every year has been at best slow … and it has been the “bright” spot this summer. The Bogachiel/Calawah on the OP—a small but reliable summer fishery—this season has been dead. Even the sublime Skeena, the finest representation of a wild steelhead system is off-line. The Tyee Pool test fishery, which takes place every August, gives a fairly clear idea of how many steelhead will be returning that season. This August fishery produced the smallest numbers since 1957 (the worst run year in known history for the Skeena). Which leads us to the theft of our stateside crown jewel … the Big C.

The Columbia River is our canary in a coal mine. Since counting began in 1938 at Bonneville Dam, there have certainly been fluxuations in runs, but numbers never dipped below 100,000 except for 1975 (the lowest number of summer steelhead on record) when 85,000 returned past Bonneville. As of this writing there were only 60,000 through the counting windows. At the rate of 200 or less per day (peak run weeks ago and waning fast) returning, top end estimate puts this year’s run at an anemic approximation of 70,000. The forecast was for 118,000 (110,000 A run; 8,000 B run), we are 40 thousand off that goal. The Wenatchee and Methow are already slammed shut for the fifth straight year, which brings me back to a few more numbers. Numbers don’t lie. Since counting began in 1938, summer run counts have never continued to drop over four consecutive years. They have now (2016 – 188K, 2017- 117K, 2018- 102K, 2019- 70K). 

And just when you thought that state fair ride that unleashed that fried Twinkie into the lap of the fellow behind you was over, one of the carneys hit the button for one more nauseating ride … the Blob is returning. NOAA scientists (damned sciencetiffs be messin’ up errythang) just released the news a “heat wave” of warmer ocean water is already manifesting off Washington, Oregon and California coasts. Five years ago, the original Blob was the primary blame for our salmonid (especially steelhead) hiccup. 

Researchers at NOAA Fisheries Southwest Science Center in La Jolla, Calif., say this mass is the second largest warm water mass to appear in the Pacific in 40 years. This is growing in the same area, in the same fashion and is the same size as the last. The previous Blob started in 2014, peaked in 2015 and brought ocean temps up to 7 degrees F higher than normal … lethal to adults and fairly eliminates all their food. Like Bill Murray said in Caddyshack, “well…we got that goin’ for us…”    

What amazes, or more truthfully gives me painful gas, is watching the throat clearing and moonwalking from those in charge of seasons on the Snake River and its tribs, primarily the Clearwater and the Grande Ronde. With barely 3,000 fish over Little Goose Dam (should be 15,000 in a normal year) by mid-September the prognosticators are sticking to their pre-season forecast of 110,000 steelhead. And they are setting the fall seasons based on their estimates, not actual return numbers. Somehow, we still have seasons on the Snake and tributaries, which I suppose is fine and dandy but if fishing plays out anything like last season, finding steelhead will be a challenge. I worry for the strain put on wild fish, especially where bait is legal. Those folks have a marvelous way to play on words and make us all dance to their out of tune song. 

Will I be on the Grande Ronde and Snake this fall, even after these sordid numbers? You bet your sweet bippy I will. I’m a steelheader. Think I haven’t swung a fly for a few days without a grab before? It’s all part of the game, you knew the risks when you signed up, pal. 

I’m as psychotically optimistic as any steelheader should have a right to be. Fierce is my conviction; absolute is my belief summer runs will rebound. We steelheaders love the past. Not just for the better fishing, but we know just what to say because we know the outcome. The future scares us because we do not know. Gut feelings being what they are, and I truly believe in them for any and all decisions life plops on us, mine say this time is different. Yes, we experienced the massive rebound of the early 2000s and it was sweet compared to the 1970s, but the world has changed, none for better. With all the negative changes to our planet, well, I just don’t know. I do think our summer steelhead will be back strong as ever…someday. For the younger anglers, they can wait 25 years to make steelheading great again. We older folks would like to accelerate this process, thank you. 

We can’t ignore that something is happening out of our sight to steelhead. The smolts, are they making it to the salt? What is happening to them? Cormorants? Seals? Pollution? Dams? Are the adults victims of some high seas fishery? Why just steelhead? The shad run is ridiculous, over 7 million this spring. I want an answer, dammit. Coho runs are strong. A stout chinook sport fishery on the lower Columbia is happening right now, big numbers daily over Bonneville. The one-two salmon punch is hitting square. 

But wrap you egg cure stained head around this nugget … Pacific salmonid populations have been wildly fluctuating for longer than whitey has been planting his flags on the West Coast. For example, the earliest settlers/explorers reported that 18th Century native peoples from Nootka Sound would some years be near starvation due to almost no salmon returning. Their yearly diet was more than 50 percent fish; there were blocks of year’s salmon would nearly disappear. No dams. No commercial interception. Nothing by the hand of man. Just Nature’s whimsy. Hopefully the summer steelhead are just on a slope we haven’t yet experienced. And I’m happy to learn that the Rogue River in southern Oregon and rivers in California are doing much better. In fact, the Rogue has been one of the brightest summer steelhead spots on the West Coast this year. Same with the Sacramento and Klamath’s salmon runs. 

Also, I have a personal report that shines a very hopeful light on all this blackness. There are two rivers that flow from the eastern Olympic Peninsula, two smallish streams that have pronounced canyon stretches — ideal for finding and holding summer steelhead. Both have runs of wild summer steelhead, numbering possibly no more than a few dozen per crick. Like so many of our fisheries growing up, I watched these fish slowly disappear, the last sightings of any more than one steelhead in these beyond beautiful pools was back in 2002. We go down there every summer, at least once, to peer into the pools, make a token cast or two and look for ghosts. Just this last August, in my favorite spot on this green Earth, we spotted a steelhead. And his fifteen kin. Here in this year of despair, of so much hand wringing and re-setting of the Doomsday Clock for our favorite fish, was more steelhead that we have seen in the canyon pools since 1985! No rhyme nor reason, I’ll take it as a sign of a golden future.

History tells us that steelhead runs have always rebounded, but at this moment it does feel a bit like we are heading somewhere none of us wants to be. Putting every angler and biologist on high alert isn’t helpful when it comes down to policy or science. Next year will be the fifth and deciding year for summer run returns, for a positive about face. Just know the hands that threaten doom are 120 ticks from us all becoming bass anglers.

Fellow steelheaders…unless you have recently emerged from a decade long hibernation in some Siberian cave, a day-long jet ride from a wi-fi hotspot, you know the controversy. The endless in-your-face opinionated Facebook posts and comments. Magazine articles. The passion from both sides. If you are fortunate to have a wide and diverse amount of fishing friends and acquaintances, you are exposed to enthusiastic arguments from every side of the wild versus hatchery steelhead debate.

The thunder of opinion and the shaking pointed fingers ricochet from all directions. “I’m right, you’re wrong. Screw you. Oh yeah? More hatchery fish, less hatchery fish. Science. All wild all hatchery. Less plants. Gear versus fly. Blobs. Advocates for forestry, tribes and dams. More broodstock. No bait. Love bait. No broodstock. Cormorants. Development. Poaching. Gillnets. Seals. Sea lions. More plants harmful, not harmful. Damned purists. Planted fish bad. Yo mamma is so ugly … (record scratch)STOP! 

Take a breath. As David Byrne said, “Well … how did we get here?” And where do we go from here? Who, what group, large or small has a direction? I found several, one in particular that really grabbed the rock and ran with it.

Those that only accept steelhead in their purest form, wild borne to gravel and only encounter humans when being released after tussle, you are right. Those who get total satisfaction from taking a choice fin-clipped fish home, knowing their license dollar went to a fish that supports so many in the industry, you are right. And both wrong as well. Both pro hatchery and pro wild go verbally armed with good and bad science arguments, each assertion seems to have an equally valid counterpoint backed by research. 

For many years, I have watched from the shadows, taken mental notes, listened. Not wanting to take sides, dare I upset a sponsor, vendor, group, editor or friend. Take one side and lose the other. Afraid it may cost a future trip, a paycheck, a prized contact. We steelheaders are too small a fishing family to alienate anyone. Well, now I have a reason to step into the light. A movement I can get behind without fear of anything coming back sour. A movement all, no matter your outlook, can follow. Hello Hatchery And Wild.

There is no one out there who lives for times on our diverse western rivers that does not have an opinion, one way or the other. There are the purists who will only try for the true wild ones and think that hatchery fish are blasphemy and worship at the altar of the purest genetics. They will gladly give up their right to fish over distressed runs to help them recover. There are those anglers that cannot imagine not having hatchery steelhead and want nothing more than to have more than a few destination choices every winter and summer. They want to take a bright, fat-filled salmonid home for table. They are both right. I will say, from this anglers’ decades of observation, drinking more than my share from the fountain of both hatchery and wild … there is room for both. I like to think that the great majority of us want just that. And like Spock said, the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.

Two of my fondest steelheading memory banks come from both hatchery and wild fish. They play in a constant memory loop, first from the peerless Skeena system. Thirty years of autumn Nirvana. All wild steelhead, the largest trophies and healthiest run on the West Coast. Second from the hatchery summer runs from the Bogachiel/Calawah on the Washington coast. The chromest, hottest, aggressive (and wonderful eating) summer steelhead you could want. Twenty five summers, June through August. A thousand shades of green coastal forest. Take away either one of these decades of experiences, my fishing life loses much. There are so many other examples over millennia and geography I could draw but the idea is there. Both wild and hatchery fish define who I am and why I get out of bed at 3 a.m., I’m betting the same for many of you as well.

Here is a prime example of what works. For the last twenty trips around the sun, I’ve enjoyed the best of both worlds — the eastern summer steelhead of the upper Columbia and Snake. Rivers full of hatchery andwild steelhead. Next cast could be either. Release wild, take hatchery. That’s getting your cake and eating it too. The type of world we must live in if we are to continue with this thing of ours.

Get involved with groups that want both. If not join, then follow their thoughts and policies. Look up the Coastal Conservation Association. Check out Wild Steelheaders United. Pay even closer attention to a new movement, Hatchery And Wild ((www.hatchery-wild-coexist.com). Science driven. Common sense. Practical. Go to their website. Now. Read their mission statement. Read the FA’s. This is the exact type of movement we need, the style of thinking that can keep us casting and not golfing. Knowing what you want is the first step in a movement. As Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “Take the first step in faith. You don’t have to see the whole staircase, just take the first step.”

Why should you get involved? You work hard all week, and you just want to relax and fish the short time you wedge into your very busy schedule. One voice, one action, so what? It’s like farting on a garbage barge, no one notices. Remember the fishing world, especially we that live and breathe steelhead and salmon, is a tight circle and our numbers in the grand scheme are minimal. One voice, one action does make a difference in a small room. 

I’m looking at the young folks, men and women who still have multiple decades of involvement left, the ones that have basically just started this long strange outdoor trip. Tell the people that make the rules you want both. We old farts may do what we can, but the energy, drive, innovation and the future is on you. Tell the people who make the rules that you want augmentation to keep rivers open that would not be without hatchery returns. You want to visit the sublime rivers that are strongholds for wild fish where we have connections to a storied past and gifts for the future.

We must believe in science, facts, listen with near blind faith, to those blessed folks who spend their days streamside working hard, studying our rivers while we sit in our 40 hour workweek cubicles dreaming of watching floats going down this coming weekend. Have opinions. Our fishing world would be Snoozeville without them. 

There is no progress without passion. Some anglers are not going to change their minds, but maybe if the crowd noise is loud enough, they may circle the mosh pit and groove to the beat. Hatchery And Wild has the markings of a far too simple solution. Stop sitting on the fence. Let’s go with it, take it for a test spin. I’m in for simple. 

Bottom line: I believe we need to fish. No surrender. Hatchery. Wild. I believe in both.

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