Anglers ask for hatchery steelhead plants to resume in Wind River

By Allen Thomas, Columbian outdoors reporter

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STEVENSON — More opportunity to fish for steelhead is needed in Skamania County's upper Wind River. Perhaps in Hamilton Creek at North Bonneville, too.

The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife invited the public on Tuesday to discuss steelhead management in the Wind River.

And local anglers from the Columbia Gorge made it clear they'd like to see change — as in resuming the stocking of hatchery-origin summer steelhead in the Wind.

More platforms

Yakama Indian Nation fishermen have built platforms on the west side of the Wind River opposite the boat ramp. Tribal members caused a stir in the non-Indian fishing community earlier when they built about a dozen platforms at Drano Lake at the mouth of the Little White Salmon River.

State and tribal officials had initial discussions on the matter this week.

The Wind received an average of 78,000 steelhead smolts a year from 1961 to 1980. Sportsmen caught about 1,100 steelhead annually, said John Weinheimer, a state fish biologist.

Then stocking stopped from 1981 through 1983 as the state selected the Wind to be an experimental wild-steelhead-only watershed.

Not surprisingly, the catch plummeted about about 140 steelhead a year in 1983 to 1985, mostly fish dipping in the lower Wind on their way farther up the Columbia.

That wild-steelhead-only decision proved unpopular in Skamania County and stocking resumed with an average of 32,000 summer steelhead smolts from 1984 to 1997. A catch of almost 600 fish a year followed.

Steelhead populations then hit the skids in 1997 through 1999 and the Wind was closed to angling. The fish were listed as threatened under the federal Endangered Species Act in 1998.

Stocking of hatchery fish stopped in 1998 to give wild steelhead a better chance to recover.

Weinheimer said the return of wild steelhead to the Wind has varied, but hit a high of 1,500 in the 2010-11 spawning year.

"You guys tell me where there's a larger run of wild summer steelhead in Washington,'' he said.

Summer steelhead fishing in the Wind upstream of Shipherd Falls eventually resumed in 2006 with a catch-and-release season from Sept. 16 through Nov. 30. Catch-and-release fishing is allowed as long as the run is at least 500 fish.

The watershed appears seeded fully with spawners at about 500 summer steelhead. At that number, about 25,000 smolts are produced. At 1,000 spawners, still about 25,000 smolts are produced, he said.

"We can't force the river to produce more fish,'' Weinheimer said.

Dick Thompson of Vancouver, a former president of the Association of Northwest Steelheaders, said the goal of 1,500 or more wild spawners may be too high. He mentioned 500 to 700.

"It seems to me there needs to be some revision, a realistic revision, down to a carrying capacity that makes sense,'' Thompson said. "Certainly you could allow for a retention fishery when you knew you've fully seeded the drainage.''

Cliff Hollis of Carson asked if the season upstream of Shipherd Falls could open earlier than Sept. 16.

Patrick Frazier, regional fishery program manager for Southwest Washington, said watershed plans are needed for the Wind, Little White Salmon and White Salmon rivers under the statewide steelhead management plan.

An advisory group will be formed in September or October and a six-month planning process will follow, Frazier said. The watershed plan will attempt to balance fishing opportunity with protection of wild steelhead.

Weinheimer mentioned potentially returning hatchery steelhead to the Wind River downstream of Shipherd Falls.

"It bothers me to not have the ability to have families be able to fish,'' he said.

State biologists also were told winter steelhead stocking should resume in Rock Creek at Stevenson and Hamilton Creek at North Bonneville. Weinheimer said stocking in Rock Creek stopped about 1994.