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Sept. 26, 2020

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Diminishing fish runs, diseased elk send local guides out of state

Fixes to problems in Southwest Washington could be a long time coming

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A group of happy fishers after a day with Matt Eleazer of East Fork Outfitters below Bonneville Dam. While Eleazer still fishes the Columbia, he has forsaken the poor fishing on tributary rivers of Southwest Washington.
A group of happy fishers after a day with Matt Eleazer of East Fork Outfitters below Bonneville Dam. While Eleazer still fishes the Columbia, he has forsaken the poor fishing on tributary rivers of Southwest Washington. (Photo by Matt Eleazer of East Fork Outfitters) Photo Gallery

Hunting and fishing guides are abandoning Southwest Washington and moving their operations to other states.

Twenty years ago there were numerous outfitters targeting big game in the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife’s Region 5, but almost all of them are gone. Many have moved to Idaho or Oregon, where they say herds are healthier, and the state’s management is better.

Fishing guides are also shifting away. There used to be plenty of guides that targeted the Kalama and both forks of the Lewis River, but now the only river that gets attention from guides is the Cowlitz, and that guide pool has shrunk as well.

What is driving this exodus? In the case of hunting, it is the lack of game. The Mount St. Helens elk herd has been halved in the last ten years, as Treponema-Associated Hoof Disease, (TAHD) has taken its toll. Blacktail deer have been in decline for 30 years or more, and changes to the allowable methods of predator hunting have allowed populations of bear and cougar to proliferate.

Brian Lewis of Twisted Horn Outfitters used to hunt Southwest Washington elk and deer. What he has seen over the last ten years has convinced him to find greener pastures elsewhere.

“I’m over in Idaho now, I don’t do much in Washington anymore,” Lewis said. “What Fish and Game has done hasn’t worked, and they want to charge the same money for the licenses.”

Lewis is frustrated because the state’s potential for big-game hunting is impressive.

“Washington is hands down the most diverse hunting state in the country,” he said. “They’ve got three different kinds of deer, two different species of elk, and the biggest bears in the country.”

He complains that the WDFW has botched the response to the hoof disease, and he believes they offer too many tags in areas with reduced herds, which does not allow those herds to recover.

And then there are the issue of too many predators such as bears and cougars that kill fawns and calves. And, it can be also be difficult to draw quality tags. It all adds up.

“The outfitters are done,” Lewis said. “They are sick of it, and they are coming to Idaho.”

Kyle Garrison is the WDFW’s ungulate specialist, and he said he understands the frustrations of hunters, especially where the issue of THAD is involved.

“It is a terrible affliction, and all wildlife diseases are a challenge,” Garrison said, “and we don’t have any effective treatment that is going to come in and make a difference.”

Garrison made the point that any infectious disease can be impossible to control in a wild population.

“You can’t get elk to socially distance,” he remarked.

One way to combat a disease like this is to remove infected animals, which is tough when you are talking about a wary animal like elk. However, the WDFW is starting a program that would incentivize hunters to harvest sick animals for a chance at securing a quality tag for the following year through a closed lottery. That program should be made public soon.

Garrison did say the department has reduced antlerless elk tags in Southwest Washington from 1,600 in 2011 to 200 in 2018. Antlerless tags are the best method the state has to maintain a herd’s health.

Fishing guides are also leaving Southwest Washington’s rivers. While the Columbia River still offers opportunities, albeit less than it used to, the tributaries have been hard hit by hatchery stocking cutbacks forced by native fish concerns. In addition, poor ocean conditions have resulted in poor returns for the remaining fish.

Fishing guide Matt Eleazer of East Fork Outfitters has guided on the tributaries for more than 20 years, but he has given up on them.

“It’s the lack of fish,” he said when asked why. “My number one goal as a guide is to put fish in the net and have something for the clients to take home. Without that my business is null and void. When I have clients out steelhead fishing it would be really nice if they had the opportunity to take a steelhead home. That just isn’t there in Southwest Washington anymore.”

“It’s frustrating to know that some of these rivers were so good, and they are terrible now.”

Eleazer owns a home on the East Fork Lewis River. The river was classified as a wild river refuge a few years back, and no hatchery fish are stocked out anymore.

“Not having hatchery fish in there, it’s dwindled to nothing,” Eleazer said. “We had a world-class fishery.”

Kessina Lee, the Regional Director of WDFW’s Region 5, said sea lions have also played a role.

“In general, the poor returns are more a result of post-release survival than hatchery plant reductions, but I understand the frustration of anglers and guides,” she said in an email. “One aspect of survival we know is a persistent issue is pinniped predation, and we’ll be able to take a proactive, place-based approach to predation with the new Section 120 authorization from” the National Marine Fisheries Service.

That rule change will allow the department to act more aggressively when pinniped predation on salmon becomes a serious problem. However, that will probably not change much on Eleazer’s home river, the East Fork Lewis. Recovery is not certain with the changing climate, and even if the wild fish do recover, it will not happen soon.

If an effective treatment or management strategy is found for the TAHD affecting local elk, that treatment is also years away. The department is hamstrung where predator control is involved, because the anti-baiting and dog hunting laws restricting predator hunts is a legislative issue, and not one the department can resolve.

Southwest Washington’s fishing and hunting are taking a hit, and it remains to be seen if the WDFW can reverse the trend. Meanwhile, local anglers and hunters are left to wait and see if the good old days will ever return. If not, the guides may not return, either.

Terry Otto’s weekly Southwest Washington fishing report and forecast is now available online at Bob Rees’ “The Guides Forecast” at https://www.theguidesforecast.com/

Guides List

Twisted Horn Outfitters, Brian Lewis: http://www.twistedhornoutfitters.com/ 360-624-5232

East Fork Outfitters, Matt Eleazer, https://www.columbiasalmonguide.com/, 360-687-3474

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