Fishermen take a stand at 'wade-in' protest on Skagit River

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ROCKPORT β€” Curt Kraemer first fished the Skagit River for steelhead 50 years ago.

Fishing the Skagit is on every steelheader's bucket list, he says.

And now he wants to recapture what steelhead fishers had back before the river was closed to wild steelhead catchand-release about three years ago due to its federal status as a threatened species.

Kraemer, of Marysville, joined about 80 steelhead enthusiasts known as "Occupy Skagit" on Saturday at Howard Miller Steelhead Park in Rockport for a "wade-in" protest. There, the fishermen waded out into the Skagit River for hookless fishing in support of reopening the Skagit and Sauk rivers to steelhead catch-and-release.

Some participants carried signs that read, "Be reel we want Steel" and "Let my people fish."

The Skagit and Sauk rivers have been closed to wild steelhead fishing in the late winter and early spring season since 2010. Fishers can fish in December and January when the hatchery fish come through, but those fish are "not worth fishing for," said Steve Fransen, a biologist from Olympia who attended the wade-in.

Fishers tend to prefer wild steelhead because they have more fight in them. They say the more aggressive wild fish have better survival instincts.

The steelheaders who peacefully protested Saturday believe that the north Puget Sound rivers boast enough fish to allow catch-and-release fishing without endangering the population.

"It's an important aspect of productivity of fish to reserve part of that productivity for fishing," said Kraemer, a retired state Department of Fish and Wildlife biologist.

Dec Hogan, a former steelhead fishing guide on the Skagit and Sauk rivers, traveled from Midway, Utah, to support the cause.

He spent nearly 20 years guiding fishers from Europe and Maine and Canada who crossed the continent -- or the globe -- to fish for Skagit steelhead.

"It's a world-class experience," he said.

Even after he moved to Utah from the Skagit Valley a few years ago, he would return during wild steelhead season to guide fishers.

"It was still an important part of my life," he said.

But that ended when catchand-release was closed.

Wayne Cline, one of the event's organizers, remembers the Skagit River as a premiere steelhead fishing destination.

"It was a veritable who's who of flyfishing people," he said.

Leland Miyawaki of Kent, another organizer, said current flyfishing techniques originated from Skagit River fishing.

Fransen, the Olympia biologist, fiddled with his fishing fly and had it inspected by a Fish and Wildlife agent to ensure it was acceptable for "unfishing."

He used to live in the Skagit Valley and had fished the Skagit River since 1972.

The Skagit steelhead run is the healthiest of all the Puget Sound rivers, he said, though all the area's rivers are placed under the same restrictions.

Sgt. Rich Phillips, an enforcement officer with Fish and Wildlife, observed the civil disobedience Saturday.

The state isn't against the protesters, he said. Both the state and area tribes, as well as the steelheaders, want the Skagit and Sauk to reopen to fishing.

But when a species falls under a federally protected status, the National Marine Fisheries Service determines fishing limits, Phillips said.The steelhead population must meet certain federally enforced goals before the state can restore catch-and-release.

And the steelhead population, which can migrate anywhere in the sea after it leaves the rivers, is difficult to count, Phillips said. Years of counting and estimates must be calculated before biologists can determine whether the population is truly increasing.

"We think we're moving up, but nature fluxuates," he said.

Phillips wants steelhead fishing to return to the Skagit and Sauk rivers. The fishers themselves make his job easier.

"With the river closed, I lose a lot of self-appointed deputies," he said.

The steelheaders plan to travel to Olympia next week to advocate for catch-and-release at Fish and Wildlife hearings.

Saturday's showing was "twice as many as I dreamed," Cline said.

"In a way I'm not surprised because steelhead fishing is a passionate sport," he said. "It's one of the things that's unique to the Northwest and this is where it happens."