Anglers surly over potential steelhead changes

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It's been 15 years since wild steelhead in lower Columbia River tributaries were listed as threatened under the federal Endangered Species Act. And while there have been recovery plans written, habitat restoration started and angling rules tweaked, the hit on fishermen has been relatively mild.

But Tuesday, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife started the process of developing a regional management plan for steelhead in the North Fork Lewis, East Fork Lewis and Washougal rivers along with Salmon Creek.

One of the outcomes of this process likely will be elimination of hatchery steelhead releases in one of the streams in order to create a genetic bank for wild fish.

That made for a room of surly fishermen, most who seemed to view the process as another incremental deterioration in the sport they love.

The days of having hatchery steelhead and their harvest in every local watershed will end soon, said Bryce Glaser, a biologist with the Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Federal fishery officials, along with Washington's 2008 Statewide Steelhead Management Plan, are calling for designation of a network of watersheds for wild steelhead so the wild genetics are not diluted by hatchery fish.

"Sounds like lost fishing opportunity,'' said Keith Hyde, president of the Columbia River chapter of the Association of Northwest Steelheaders.

Clark County has a big population of aging anglers who have a long history of fishing the local streams, Hyde added.

"Our goal is a balance of recovery of wild fish and still providing as much opportunity as we can,'' Glaser said.

A 10- to 15-member work group is being formed to assist the department develop the plan. Nominations are being accepted through June 30 and the group will be named by July 15.

Nomination forms are available by contacting John Weinheimer, a district biologist, by email at john.weinheimer@dfw.wa.gov.

Weinheimer said the work group will begin meeting in late July. The timetable calls for montly meetings through December. A similar process was completed recently for a handful of streams in the Columbia Gorge.

Guide Jack Glass of Troutdale, Ore., asked the department to boost the hatchery programs on a couple of rivers if a stream is going to be taken away.

"Build us a couple of fisheries we can rely on,'' Glass said.

He also suggested that if new hatchery stocks are to be developed using wild fish, then capture them by hook-and-line in order to breed steelhead that are aggressive and prone to biting.

Several in the audience Tuesday said it appears the planning process is skewed to select the East Fork of the Lewis River to be a wild steelhead stronghold.

They noted there are hatcheries in the North Fork of the Lewis and Washougal watersheds, while Salmon Creek is too small and in a heavily urbanized area.

State officials said the North Fork of the Lewis River upstream of Swift Dam does not qualify as a potential steelhead stronghold. Wild steelhead are being reintroducted in the upper North Fork of the Lewis, but are far from an established population.

Liz Hamilton, executive director of the Northwest Sportfishing Industry Association, also asked the state to be creative in finding ways to boost angling opportunity while protecting wild steelhead.

"There are a lot of folks in this room feeling a little threatened by the word change,'' she said.

Allen Thomas covers hunting, fishing, hiking and other outdoor topics for The Columbian. He can be reached at 360-735-4555 or al.thomas@columbian.com.