With sufficient numbers of summer steelhead now on the final leg of their migration to the Upper Columbia Basin, Washington fisheries managers have opened a 2012-13 hatchery steelhead season in several North Central Washington streams.
Available to fishers of the sea-run trout as of Tuesday, Oct. 16, are the upper Columbia River mainstem above Rock Island Dam, major sections of the Methow and Okanogan rivers and portions of lower reach tributaries, including the Wenatchee, Icicle and Entiat rivers.
Starting Thursday, Nov. 1 fishing for fin-clipped summer steelhead will be legal in the lower Similkameen River.
Managers say the wild component of this year's Upper Columbia Basin steelhead run is low, and the season could be closed before March 31 in some or all waters. Anglers should regularly check WDFW regulations Web page for closure notices before fishing.
In December, four-month winter whitefish opportunities start in selected reaches of these waters.
2012 RUN IS DOWN
The latest 2012 count of Upper Columbia River-bound steelhead passing over Priest Rapids Dam above the Tri-Cities was 16,772 hatchery and wild fish as of Wednesday, Oct. 17. On that day, the steelhead count at Wells Dam above Lake Chelan was 9,171 fish.
On Oct. 17, 2011, the steelhead count at Priest Rapids Dam exceeded 18,300 adults.
Wild steelhead will hunker down for the winter in Columbia reservoirs or in the deepest pools of their natal rivers, awaiting the first warmth from spring thaws to spawn in March and April.
Since the wild summer-run steelhead of the Upper Columbia were listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act, winter fishing opportunities for the hatchery-origin component of these long-traveled steelhead, if they occurred, usually were restricted to between the Nov. 1 and the end of March.
Two factors have enabled this extended personal use opportunity.
The first is the production of steelhead at several state fish hatcheries in this part of the Columbia Basin together with programs at the Leavenworth, Entiat and Winthrop federal hatcheries.
The second is the $8.75 Columbia River Salmon and Steelhead Endorsement, a portion of which pays for required in-season creel census monitoring that enable state managers to track effort and project the impact on the protected wild fish.
HATCHERY-ORIGIN FISH ARE THE QUARRY
NOAA Fisheries, the federal agency overseeing endangered and threatened fish species has allowed these recreational opportunities each year by issuing permits to the state of Washington stipulating that they must not impede wild steelhead recovery.
By state regulation, keeper steelhead must be missing their adipose fin and have a healed vestigial bump at the fin's former location on the fish's back. These fins were snipped off young steelhead just prior to their release from their natal facilities as smolts.
Anglers must release all trout, rainbow or not, shorter than 20 inches. Anglers also must let go all steelhead that have either a Floy anchor tag or one or more round holes in their tails.
The daily bag limit in all open waters is two hatchery-origin steelhead a day.
And while all wild (adipose fin bearing fish) must be released alive and unharmed without being removed from the water, successful fishers must retain and kill every hatchery-origin steelhead they bring to hand. This is part of the commitment to keep the cultured fish from introducing their genes back into the wild population.
In addition, to spread the steelhead wealth among anglers, when the daily limit of two hatchery steelhead is reached, anglers must stop fishing for hatchery steelhead.
The night fishing regulation applies in all waters including the upper Columbia pools. Anglers must also abide by the selective gear fishing rule, using of single barbless hooks without bait. The only exception allows bait in the main Columbia reach.
The full text definitions of these and other legal personal use regulatory terms are found on pages 18-19 of the Fishing in Washington pamphlet.
AND THE STEELHEADING REACHES ARE...
Stream reaches available for fishing are:
? The Upper Columbia River from Rock Island Dam upstream to 400 feet below Chief Joseph Dam. Night closure and selective gear rules are in order, except anglers may use bait.
? The Okanogan River from its mouth upstream to the Highway 97 bridge at Oroville. Night closure and selective gear rules are in effect.
? The Methow River from its mouth near Pateros upstream to the Chewuck River at Winthrop. Night closure and selective gear rules apply, and fishing from any floating device is banned between the second powerline crossing to the first Highway 153 bridge.
? The Entiat River from the Alternate Highway 97 bridge, just above the mouth, upstream to 800 feet below the Entiat National Fish Hatchery outfall. Night closure and selective gear rules are in effect.
? The Wenatchee River from its mouth upstream to the bridge on Icicle River Road. Night closure and selective gear rules apply, and motorized watercraft are banned by local ordinance.
? The Icicle River from its mouth upstream to 500 feet below the Leavenworth National Fish Hatchery's barrier dam. Night closure and selective gear rules apply, plus motorized watercraft are banned by local ordinance.
When it opens Thursday, Nov. 1, the Similkameen River will be available to anglers from its mouth to a point 400 feet below Enloe Dam west of Oroville with the night closure and selective gear provisions applying.
In compliance with the terms of the federal permits for these fisheries, state managers will collect information throughout the season about angler effort and success, including encounters with wild fish, to monitor effects on the native population.
At any time, if adverse impact thresholds are reached in any of these waters, they will close.
Before heading over the hump from here for these fall/winter fisheries, anglers should check the Washington State Department of Transportation's mountain pass reports Webpage and the National Weather Service's Webpage for mountain forecasts.
Doug Huddle, the Bellingham Herald's outdoors correspondent, since 1983 has written a weekly fishing and hunting column that now appears Sundays. Read his blog and contact him at http://pblogs.bellinghamherald.com/outdoor.