New Fishing Rules Signal a Renewed Hope for Washington’s Winter Steelhead

Photo: Arian Stevens

Washington’s Olympic Peninsula and its dozens of pristine rivers are widely referenced as the premier destination for winter steelhead in the lower 48 states. In reality, this hallowed region suffers the same fate of dwindling winter steelhead runs as the rest of the coast. Shadows of their former runs, Olympic Peninsula (OP) steelhead now have a glimmer of hope thanks to a bold new regulatory decision for Washington’s Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW). 

Photo: Arian Stevens

On Tuesday, December 8th, WDFW fishery managers announced new rules for the winter steelhead fishery. The new set of rules represents a complete paradigm shift in how this delicate and diminished species is managed. Change hurts; many stakeholders of this fishery will suffer, but these runs of steelhead were nearing the brink of collapse, as most were consistently missing escapement goals. Several stakeholder groups were vehemently opposed to the new rules and drummed up significant opposition, which garnered enough support to hold an emergency WDFW hearing last week, leaving many people unsure that these regulations were going to stand. But, thanks to overwhelming support the regulations are in effect immediately and will hopeful make a positive impact on the fisheries of the Olympic Peninsula.

Without bold changes, like these rules, the entire fishery was heading towards complete closure and Endangered Species designation. So, while this will put some guides out of business and affect how people have targeted steelhead for decades, you can still fish.


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A post shared by Lael Paul Johnson (@flygyde)

“Some are happy, some are upset, and I’m sure we just went through this with an election, but at the end of the day we are all anglers, and Americans,” said Lael Paul Johnson @flygyde. “Now that the decision has been made, it is up to us to either come together and make the best of STILL BEING ABLE TO FISH.”

New Regulations

Beginning December 14th, the following changes will affect all fishing on Washington’s coastal tributaries:

  • Fishing from a floating device is prohibited.
  • Selective gear rules are in effect prohibiting the use of bait (including scents or scented materials), except only one single-point barbless hook is allowed.
  • Anglers must release all rainbow trout.
Photo: Arian Stevens

The Brouhaha

There is a misconception in the fly fishing community that steelhead are mostly targeted with fur and feather swung from a spey rig with boots planted on a gravel bank. That idea could not be further from the truth; conventional anglers, bait fishermen, guides and businesses, and tribal fishermen all engage in this fishery and share the burden of their decline. It’s an unfortunate reality, but the root of the problem in this fishery is there are far too many people targeting too little fish; so, the fish that survive and renter rivers are hammered on. These heightened encounters have unfortunate consequences for the remaining fish and are crippling the runs. WDFW’s rule changes, therefore, aim to decrease angler-wild fish encounters to increase the number of fish that successfully spawn. In addition, a tribal gill net fishery remains, which is absolutely part of the problem. But everyone that engages in the winter steelhead fishery shares the burden of their downfall.

Who doesn’t love fishing from a boat: it’s less demanding (from the client point of view), comfortable, and wildly effective. According to WDFW creel data, boat anglers caught five times as many winter steelhead as their shorebound counterparts. Guiding on Washington’s coastal rivers is done almost entirely by boat. This is the problem; boat anglers are too good at their craft and put a beating on pooled-up fish. Frustration within the guiding community is completely understandable. Effectiveness and catch frequency influence a guide’s payday, and while there has been a recent influx of out-of-state guides, a great deal of these Olympic Peninsula operations support local families and communities. 

Further, there are many anglers who have chased wild winter steelhead their whole lives by dunking bait or trolling plugs. This rule change upends their preferred method. But this provision was formed under sound reason: those methods lead to higher results of accidental mortality, and WDFW actually based the no bait provision purely on the method’s effectiveness.

John McMillan with a Wild Steelhead

After reading through several social media trends, it became apparent that the big picture was being missed and anglers were focusing on specific regulation. There was a very vocal ‘the State cannot tell me how to fish; we should ignore these rules” crowd. There was a camp placing total blame on tribal fisheries, which are guaranteed by centuries old treaties. And, there were dozens complaining about losing hatchery programs or calls to increase hatchery production. There was very little discussion acknowledging a nearly full fishing season–most rivers are closing only two weeks early. Additionally, there was even less foresight to see the realistic possibility of an Endangered Species Act designation coming in and completely closing the fishery. 

While several stakeholder groups will suffer, this suite of rule changes protects the majority of days on the water and should decrease fish encounters. Was its promulgation perfect? No, it could be described as being done at a breakneck pace. However, something had to be done for this prolific fishery. “Co-managers and the state are exploring ways to provide even more advanced notice in the future,” wrote WDFW. “As fishery managers, we know that to preserve any coastal steelhead angling opportunity and recover wild fish in the future, we have to catch fewer fish right now.” 

Condition of OP Winter Steelhead

Salmon and steelhead throughout the West Coast are a fraction of what they used to be. For years, many assumed the Olympic Peninsula was different and these relatively strong runs were their best-kept secrets. Those secrets slowly started getting out, and the OP quickly became a hot destination for fishermen from all over. Unfortunately, as angling participation increased, and a prolonged period of poor ocean conditions, the runs of winter steelhead decreased. Outside of a couple of outlier rivers–the Quillayute and Queets Rivers–escapement goals over the last two decades were regularly missed. This is due to fish interactions, as the OP sports tremendous habitat.

The WDFW’s preliminary outlook for the upcoming year was even worse. Four out of the seven river systems are expected to miss their escapement goals. In other terms, the run of fish that avoid harvest–accidental or intentional– and spawn will not be enough to sustain the population. These runs are slowly dying because of angling impacts; something had to be done. 

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