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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Steelhead anglers must do their duty for the Tucannon

Steelhead caught on a fly. (Michael Visintainer)

In this momentous period of history, fishermen must ponder their duty and act on putting aside political differences and personal biases to serve their fishery.

Licensed anglers who will cast, catch, kill and consume hatchery steelhead are being courted by southeast Washington fisheries biologists overseeing the Tucannon River.

It’s a surprisingly hard sell.

“We’re asking steelheaders to go fishing and keep all adipose-clipped fish regardless of condition,” said Joe Bumgarner, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife fisheries biologist in Clarkston.

“We need more fishermen to help. Some don’t even know there are harvestable hatchery fish returning to the Tucannon.”

Others don’t realize the hatchery steelhead are competing with the wild steelhead the biologists are obligated by law to protect.

Overshadowed by the usually fine fishing in the Grande Ronde – another Snake River tributary – the Tucannon has lost its appeal to anglers for understandable reasons.

Perhaps 2,000-3,000 wild adult fish were returning to the Columbia County stream in the 1950’s, luring a dedicated bunch of anglers, Bumgarner said. But construction of lower Snake River dams and other factors sent the fishery downhill.

By the mid-70’s, sport harvest in the Tucannon River – which was solely supported by wild-origin steelhead – was rapidly declining and steelhead seasons in the river were limited or closed.

Federal compensation for fish losses caused by the four lower Snake dams funded hatcheries that produced steelhead released for sport harvest into the Tucannon starting in 1983.

Within a few years, up to approximately 400 hatchery steelhead per year were returning to spawn in the Tucannon. Sport harvest improved significantly, but the hatchery fish competed for spawning areas with the wild fish.

In 1997, as wild fish numbers continued to decline, all Snake River Basin steelhead populations were listed as endangered under federal law.

In 2000, fish managers began replacing hatchery steelhead stocks that originated outside the Snake River Basin with the progeny of wild origin fish.

The number of Lyons Ferry stock hatchery fish was reduced as the wild-origin fish were released in the test phase. The wild-origin hatchery portion of the release quota could not be fin-clipped. That reduced the number of fish anglers could catch and keep.

The National Marine Fisheries Service forced the state to cease releases of Lyons Ferry steelhead into the Tucannon, resulting in no fin-clipped harvestable steelhead from 2011 through 2013.

Word spread when fin-clipping ceased but the news didn’t get around when fin-clipping resumed, Bumgarner said.

Although hatchery space is currently limited, the state is releasing roughly 100,000 of the wild-origin-stock steelhead smolts per year, 50,000 of which are fin-clipped.

The result is hundreds of adult fish returning to the river but few anglers to greet them.

“That’s something we would like to see changed,” Bumgarner said, noting that even more fish will be available when hatchery rearing space is increased as funding is available.

This isn’t the best year to make this plea. Steelhead runs throughout the Snake River system are hurting as the one-salt fish component – normally 70 to 80 percent of the returns – is almost a bust.

Only approximately 150 steelhead have made it back to the Tucannon this year so far, he said. “But there are a lot of Snake River fish that duck into the Tucannon during their migration.”

Currently, fall chinook are spawning in the lower Tucannon and steelhead tend to shy away from them until spawning subsides by the end of the month.

Then it will be the steelhead’s turn.

“In January and February, the steelhead that have returned from the ocean and are holding in the Snake River will start moving into the Tucannon to spawn, including hatchery fish that are not from this river,” Bumgarner said. “We really want anglers to come and remove some of those hatchery-clipped fish.”

The Tucannon season concludes in February per federal rules. The state is trying to change that since fish that need to be removed continue to come into the Tucannon through March. The state also is asking the feds to increase the daily catch limit from two to three.

The eating quality of those fin-clipped spawners won’t be prime. That’s why anglers answering the call of duty should have access to a smoker – and a “Saving the Fishery” recipe for smoked trout salad.

Removing the hatchery fish is so important to the future of fishing in the river, the state requires even ardent catch-and-release anglers to retain fin-clipped steelhead caught in the Tucannon.

“If anglers don’t start fishing the Tucannon again,” Bumgarner said, “we’ll have to rethink and maybe reduce our plans for the future.

“The feds might say there’s no reason to spend money on hatchery production, improvements and more fishing access.”