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For the first time since 2009, anglers can try to catch this prize on the Skagit River

State officials have opened a limited catch-and-release fishery for Skagit River wild steelhead for the first time since 2009. The first opportunity for anglers will be Saturday and last through Sunday during daylight hours.
State officials have opened a limited catch-and-release fishery for Skagit River wild steelhead for the first time since 2009. The first opportunity for anglers will be Saturday and last through Sunday during daylight hours. Courtesy to The Bellingham Herald

Anglers this spring will be able to try to hook a Skagit River wild steelhead — a revered run — for the first time since 2009, according to state wildlife officials.

The first opening for the catch-and-release sport fishery will begin Saturday and last through Sunday during daylight hours, according to the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Other openings are scheduled for April 18-22 and April 25-29 along a portion of the Skagit River, as well as the Sauk River in northwest Washington. More are expected under a five-year plan.

The Skagit steelhead are listed as a threatened species under the federal Endangered Species Act, but unlike many other of the Sound's salmon and steelhead runs, their stocks have been rebuilding.

This has prompted National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Fisheries to sign off on a proposal submitted by state and tribal officials for fisheries to target the Skagit steelhead.

"We know that there is a huge number of fisherman who have been really patient but anxiously awaiting this opportunity and we're happy we're able to finally make this happen," said Barry Thom, the Portland-based regional administrator for NOAA Fisheries West Coast Region.

To reduce the harm to the steelhead as they are returned to the water, anglers must use single-point barbless hooks, and no bait is allowed.

Tribes will be able to keep the steelhead they catch in ceremonial, subsistence and commercial harvests. However, tribal fishermen will not conduct a harvest this spring, according to state officials.

Members of the Upper Skagit Tribe fish for sockeye salmon on the Baker River near the town of Concrete, Washington, Wednesday, July 5, 2017. What was once a summer long tradition of living on the river and fishing has been reduced to four to six

"The state and the tribes struck the right balance," Thom said. "They're providing some fishing opportunities but also making sure that we protect steelhead in the Skagit River for the future."

Thom said that the Skagit River steelhead returns have averaged around 8,000 fish in recent years.

Under the five-year plan, when runs are strong, up to 25 percent of the fish could die due to fisheries without affecting the efforts to rebuild the runs, according to NOAA Fisheries. When runs are forecast to be weak, that death rate could be reduced to as low as 4 percent of the run.

In a statement released Thursday, Trout Unlimited and Wild Steelheaders United supported the decision to greenlight a fishery. But the statement expressed concern that the up to 25 percent mortality rate is too high, "and could impede wild steelhead recovery and jeopardize future fishing opportunity."

The Skagit basin has been the focal point of a multimillion-dollar effort to rebuild salmon and steelhead runs. This work has included removing fish-passage barriers and protecting habitat.

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