Salmon Creek eyed for larger winter steelhead release

By Allen Thomas, Columbian outdoors reporter

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Will the lower few miles of Salmon Creek, flowing through the heart of urban Clark County, become Southwest Washington's winter steelhead fishing hotspot?

Well, perhaps not a hotspot, but angling in the small stream may get a lot better in Decembers and Januarys if the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife boosts the release of young winter steelhead from 20,000 now to 40,000 annually in the future.

That's one of the recommendations of the Steelhead Management Work Group, a 20-member advisory panel that's been meeting since September to assist the agency with steelhead issues in the North Fork of the Lewis, East Fork of the Lewis and Washougal rivers, plus Salmon Creek.

First, just a bit of background.

The Statewide Steelhead Management Plan calls for creation of a network of gene banks, watersheds where wild steelhead stocks largely are protected from the effects of hatchery programs and may result in the elimination of hatchery plants.

The work group, after several meetings, is poised to recommend the East Fork of the Lewis be a gene bank for both winter and summer steelhead. Other work groups have recommended the Wind River be a summer steelhead gene bank and the North Fork of the Toutle and Green rivers be a winter steelhead gene bank.

The East Fork of the Lewis River gets 15,000 summer steelhead smolts, young fish reared at Skamania Hatchery on the North Fork of the Washougal River and trucked to the East Fork Lewis for release.

The East Fork was getting 60,000 winter steelhead smolts, also from Skamania Hatchery, but that number was scheduled to drop to 38,000 to meet guidelines to prevent too many hatchery steelhead on the spawning grounds used by wild fish.

Then, when Eric Kinne, hatchery reform coordinator, examined the details of the requirements, he determined the 38,000 winter steelhead smolts allowed in the East Fork of the Lewis actually is only 19,000.

Several members of the work group strongly supported making the East Fork Lewis a wild steelhead gene bank. Some others said if the hatchery releases are to be so meager, then go all wild and see what happens.

Some hatchery-origin winter steelhead from the big release of 100,000 in the North Fork of the Lewis River likely will stray into the East Fork.

So, if the recommendations are implemented by the Department of Fish and Wildlife, that leaves basically 15,000 summer steelhead smolts and 38,000 winter-run smolts to release somewhere else.

Most work group members said the smolts being removed from the East Fork of the Lewis need to stay in a Clark County watershed. The Kalama River has some capacity to accept more winter and summer steelhead, but was rejected.

Kinne said the Washougal River can accept about 10,000 more summer steelhead smolts, then runs up against the guidelines limiting the number of hatchery fish on the spawning grounds.

The work group agreed with recommending 10,000 summer steelhead in the Washougal and reprograming the remaining 5,000 summer smolts to winter steelhead when eggs are collected this winter.

That adds up to 45,000 winter smolts needing a new home river, with the recommendation to put 20,000 more in Salmon Creek and 25,000 more in the Washougal.

Ed Wickersham of Ridgefield, a work group member, said Salmon Creek has good access downstream of Highway 99 and adequate winter stream flows.

The agency has the additional winter steelhead smolts available for release in the spring of 2014. Returns from the larger release would start showing in November and December of 2015.

Putting lots of smolts in small streams is not unprecedented.

Rock Creek in Skamania County, which has only about 1.5 miles of fishing access, is getting a release of 20,000 winter steelhead.

The work group meets again at noon on Nov. 21. Among the topics will be discussion of steelhead fishing regulations, especially given the changes coming to the East Fork Lewis River and Salmon Creek.