Anglers are beginning to fear the Washington Fish and Wildlife Department may be willing to sacrifice trout fishing on the Tucannon River for a noble but perhaps unrealistic goal - to save a few hundred Snake River spring chinook salmon.
Tucannon spring chinooks are considered endangered species. The federal listing by the National Marine Fisheries Service restricts management of other species in the system, including trout.
Last year, only 250 adult spring chinook returned to the Tucannon River, said Joe Bumgarner, a state Department of Fish and Wildlife biologist.
From 1985 through 1993, runs averaged about 600 fish but dipped as low as 53 in 1995. The recovery goal for spring salmon on the Tucannon River is 1,152 fish.
The first sign anglers had of the divisive issue was a few years ago when the state discontinued stocking trout on the Tucannon in the state’s Wooten Wildlife Recreation Area, the only section open to the public.
Biologists said anglers dunking worms during critical spawning periods would catch salmon smolts, along with trout, thereby hurting efforts to revive salmon populations. Poaching of adult salmon also was a concern.
Currently, only a small portion of the Tucannnon - which runs through private property - is stocked with trout and all tributaries of the Tucannon are closed to fishing. Depending upon the success of spring chinook recovery, there could be further reductions in trout plantings, state officials said.
To mollify the thousands of anglers who once cast lines on the Tucannon River, a series of man-made impoundments were created along the Tucannon and stocked with hatchery-reared trout.
The seven lakes - Spring, Blue, Rainbow, Beaver, Watson, Big Four and Curl - have provided a popular, early fishery beginning March 1.
However, flooding last spring damaged many of the intake structures that allow the lakes to fill with diverted river water. Only Spring and Rainbow lakes are expected to be ready for anglers March 1. Four lakes stand empty and Curl lake won’t open until June 1.
State officials said they will make the repairs, but probably not in time for this season.
State officials said they have few options in managing trout in the Tucannon itself, since listing of the salmon puts the authority in the hands of the National Marine Fisheries Service.
Jim Kirkpatrick, owner of the Last Resort on the Tucannon, believes the loss of a recreational fishery on the Tucannon River, along with reduced fishing opportunity on the Tucannon Lakes, will be significant.
“In a normal year, as many as 70,000 people might use the Tucannon Lakes and camp along the Tucannon River. Can you imagine what it’s going to be like this year with only two lakes open to fishing?” he asked.
Kirkpatrick says saving salmon at all costs is wrong for the Tucannon. He believes the state has a duty to stand up to the federal government, even though he knows that’s not likely.
“Why ruin a great trout fishery at the expense of salmon recovery when it will have little or no economic or recreational benefit to anyone?” he added.
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