Emergency sportfishing closures imposed just after the turn of the new year in all or portions of the Nooksack, Skagit and Stillaguamish river systems have halted or curtailed recreational steelheading in the last full month of the winter fishery's season.
State fish production facilities in the three basins responsible for maintaining hatchery steelhead runs are experiencing lower than needed returns of the sea-run rainbows.
Short stretches directly below fish production facilities in the upper Skagit and North Fork Stillaguamish river basins were first to be closed on Monday, Jan. 6, by order of the fish and wildlife director. All other sections of these two rivers open for fishing remain so under permanent regulations in the pamphlet.
Waters specifically designated in the Jan. 6 closure notice were the lower Cascade River in the vicinity of the state's Marblemount Hatchery and the North Fork Stillaguamish River where WDFW's Whitehorse Hatchery is located.
The system fisheries most heavily affected are those of the Nooksack, which was shut down entirely to sport fishing on Thursday, Jan. 9, to conserve hatchery fish bound for the fish and wildlife department's Kendall Creek Hatchery.
Under the state's steelhead and hatchery genetics management plans, only adult fish that are externally marked identifying them as having originated from a hatchery may be spawned to produce offspring for future hatchery runs.
The iconic mark that visually differentiates these "cultured-origin" fish from their wild cousins is the missing adipose fin - a fatty appendage on the fish's back near the tail, that's not needed for propulsion or guidance.
A statewide sportfishing regulation now requires that all wild winter and summer-run steelhead be released alive and unharmed if hooked and landed by recreational fishers. State/tribal hatchery management policies also ban the use of wild steelhead as broodstock in artificial production programs.
In the face of diminished adult broodstock recruitment to the Kendall Creek fish production facility, both Lummi Nation and the Nooksack Tribe, who by federal court ruling have sovereign authority over their own fisheries, reportedly have agreed to close their commercial and ceremonial/subsistence fisheries targeting steelhead as of Friday, Jan. 10.
Both the Jan. 6 and Jan. 9 closure orders go out of force Jan. 31, at which time the permanent fishing regulations outlined in the state's pamphlet will again be in effect.
That's of relatively small consequence to Nooksack fishers, since virtually all of the previously open steelhead waters in the Nooksack were set to close Jan. 31 anyway.
However, the lifting of the closure will allow anglers back into the lower North Fork Nooksack from Mosquito Lake Road upstream to Maple Creek for the first 15 days of February to catch any hatchery-origin fish loitering in waters in the immediate vicinity of their birthplace.
The lower Cascade River also will rejoin the extended fishing waters of the upper Skagit for the Feb. 1-15 fishery, and the aforementioned reach of the North Fork Stillaguamish River will reopen for the 15-day February hatchery mop-up fishery in those waters.
ELSEWHERE FOR STEELHEAD
A partial closure by emergency order of the suite of upper Columbia Basin summer-run steelheading streams occurred in December. Included in this shutdown were portions of the Wenatchee and Icicle rivers and the mainstem Columbia between Rock Island and Wells dams.
However, several options remain there for sport fishers, including the Okanogan, lower Similkameen and lower Methow rivers, as well as the main Columbia River from Wells Dam upstream to the Chief Joseph Dam markers.
Steelheading for summer-runs also remains open in several lower sections of the Grande Ronde River in Southeast Washington together with reaches of the lower Palouse, Touchet, Tucannon, Snake and Walla Walla rivers. In many of these streams, anglers may keep three hatchery-origin fish.
Of course, anglers have access to Southwest Washington's vaunted steelhead venues, including the Cowlitz, Kalama, Lewis and Washougal rivers contingent on regulations found in the purple section of the pamphlet.
Winter steelheading also continues in many ocean-entry stream systems from Willapa Bay north to Cape Flattery. River reaches open for steelhead in Willapa Bay and Grays Harbor tributaries tend to close sooner than those rivers north of Grays Harbor.
Several of the so-called North Coast ported streams have a combination of early hatchery fish opportunities as well as the only legal option in the state for retention of wild steelhead. Anglers are reminded that the regulatory window for keeping natives starts in mid-February. Until then only marked fish may be kept, and they will be hard to find on rivers such as the Hoh and Queets that do not have hatcheries on them.
Winter river fishers are strongly advised to log into the fish and wildlife department's emergency fishing regulations website at fortress.wa.gov/dfw/erules/efishrules/rules_current_order_by_date.j for the most up-to-date closure information as well as to read carefully the FishWashington sport regulations pamphlet.
Also, be sure to check the 2013-14 Fish Washington sport regulations pamphlet for other special rules, such as selective gear or barbless hook provisos that may specifically apply to intended fishing waters.
Doug Huddle, the Bellingham Herald's outdoors correspondent, since 1983 has written a weekly fishing and hunting column that appears Sundays. Read his blog and contact him bellinghamherald.com/outdoors-blog/index.html.
WINTER-RUN STEELHEAD HATCHERY WATCH
As of Thursday, Jan. 9, Western Washington state and cooperative hatcheries have reported the following hatchery winter steelhead returns and egg-takes. There are comparisons to last year at this time for reference.
Maritime Heritage Center Hatchery (Whatcom Creek): 13 adults as of Wednesday, Jan. 8. Same time in 2012: one adult.
Kendall Creek Hatchery (North Fork Nooksack River): 77 adults with 72,000 eggs taken, goal is 190,000 eggs. Same time in 2012: 39 adults, 44,000 eggs taken.
Marblemount Hatchery (Cascade River (Skagit)): 48 adults with 91,500 eggs taken, goal is 275,000 eggs. Same time in 2012: 95 adults, 187,000 eggs taken.
Whitehorse Hatchery (North Fork Stillaguamish River): 19 adults, 19,613 eggs taken. Same time in 2012: 103 adults, 125,690 eggs taken.
Tokul Creek Hatchery (Snoqualmie River (Snohomish): 274 adults with 264,033 eggs taken. Same time in 2012: 500 adults, 550,286 eggs taken.
Soos Creek Hatchery (Green River): 57 total adults with 50,600 eggs taken. Same time in 2012: 77 adults: 72,000 eggs taken.
Dungeness Hatchery (Dungeness River): Three adults as of Wednesday, Jan. 8. Same time in 2012, 23 adults: 16,000 eggs taken.
Bogachiel Hatchery (Bogachiel River (Quillayute): 391 adults with 316,400 eggs taken. Same time in 2012: 1,193 adults, 306,000 eggs taken (target 155,000 egg take goal).
Humptulips Hatchery (Humptulips River): 335 adults with 185,920 eggs taken. Same time in 2012: 610 adults, 187,250 eggs taken.
Forks Creek Hatchery (Willapa River): 129 adults with 120,000 eggs taken. Same time in 2012: 418 adults, 200,000 eggs taken
Cowlitz Hatchery (Cowlitz River): 526 adults with no eggs taken. Same time in 2012: 817 adults, no eggs reported taken.