Unpopular at the Boat Ramp

I say and do a lot of things that make me pretty unpopular on the river.  The same things that usually won’t get me invited back to do a 2nd presentation at the local fishing association meetings.

It’s not that I’m rude, loud, obnoxious or otherwise an annoyance to society, it’s that I’m not shy about telling things like I think they ought to be when it comes to water, fish and fishing.

Being a fly fishing guide on a river that is primarily dominated by bait and gear anglers doesn’t help either.  We share the same river, but not the same principals and ideals.

There are a several “hot topics” with anglers and here are a couple I feel strongly about:

Bait:  I feel use of bait should be banned in most all instances.  The exceptions would be stocked “kiddie ponds” and some reservoirs.  If it’s a location where the ODFW dumps hatchery raised trout on a regular basis, then it’s probably OK to put on a gob of powerbait, worms, fish eggs, corn or other substance on a hook.  After all, that’s what those fish are raised for – to be caught and kept by the general public that buy fishing licenses.

However, in our rivers and streams that are home to native trout species and anadromous salmon species, bait is a problem.  So much of the bait used these days is cured, preserved, dyed and processed with chemicals and substances that are toxic.  Let’s face it, fish aren’t that smart, especially the young ones.  If it looks, smells and tastes like food, they’re going to eat it.

A 2″ long fingerling trout isn’t going to inhale a #1/0 hook with a gob of roe attached, but a 20″ Native Cutthroat might.  What’s its chance of survival once it swallows that gob and big hook deep, then is played and landed (and hopefully released)?  And back to that 2″ fingerling that picks up the scraps that fall off the hook.  Can it survive the sulfates, dyes and other chemicals that are now in its system?  Those little “bait thieves” that are too small to hook – those are either native local trout or outbound salmon and steelhead.  When they eat the poison at the end of your line and die, you’re either killing the local population, or reducing the returns of future years.

Wild anadromous salmon and local native trout species should not be subjected to toxic chemicals by “sportsman”. 

At first glance of the Oregon Fishing Regulations, you’d get the impression that everything is on the up and up.  Here are the Willamette Zone rules regarding Salmon and Steelhead:

Salmon and Steelhead:  

• In the aggregate: 2 adult salmon or steelhead per day, 20 per year. 5 jacks per day, 2 daily jack limits in possession.

• Angling is restricted to artificial flies and lures in streams. See exceptions under Special Regulations where use of bait is allowed.

• Harvest of non adipose fin-clipped salmon or steelhead is prohibited in the Willamette Zone unless otherwise noted under Special Regulations.

• There is no annual limit on adipose fin-clipped salmon or adipose fin-clipped steelhead as long as the appropriate number of Hatchery Harvest Tags have been purchased to record the catch.

Seems reasonable, right?  Then you take a look at the “special exceptions under special regulations” and find that the Willamette River and most all of the major tributaries to it have special exceptions and special regulations that say the exact opposite.  Bait IS allowed in the Willamette River, Clackamas River, Molalla River, North and South Santiam Rivers and the Mckenzie River.  Correct me if I’m wrong, but 99% of the Salmon and Steelhead returning to the Willamette Zone are heading for one of those rivers where the use of bait IS allowed.  What’s the point of making it a zone-wide regulation, if you’re going to turn around and make an exception for the majority of the zone?

Note:  There are a few small sections of the McKenzie and Upper Willamette where the bait exception expires.  Those two rivers also have catch and release only sections for trout as well. Somebody put their foot down and made their voice heard!  Good on you mates!

Single, Barbless Hooks Only:  Again, in our rivers and streams containing wild species, why do we allow the use of multi-hook rigs and treble hooks on lures?  Obviously, the answer is that it’s easier to catch fish!  Ever try to get a #2 treble hook out of the mouth of a 12″ native rainbow trout?  I have, and it’s a disaster.  The time out of the water and the tearing of tissue make chances of post-catch survival pretty slim.

There’s always a gamble when fishing – any type of fishing – that you’re going to stick a fish wrong. A #2 fly hook that pierces a fish wrong can maim or kill it outright, but why not limit those chances by being selective with hook type regulations?

This topic is where I need to do a better job of putting my money where my mouth is.  There are specific instances where I use treble hooks on spinning rigs.  During the summer on some steelhead trips and again in the fall when we have a decent Coho run.  However, if a client wishes to fish with spinners during a season when Wild Steelhead are in the system, I simply change out the treble hook for a single hook.  In hindsight, I should just use singles year round.

Gill nets:  This is one topic where most sportsman can agree – both the fly guys and the gear & bait lobbers.  Gill nets indiscriminately catch just about everything that swims into them, including endangered and threatened anadromous species and local native species. Once they are in the net, there is no chance of a unharmed release.  The fish are done for.

Local and Regional Angling groups have done a good job making their voices heard on this topic and recent regulation change have removed some gill netting from the mainstem of the Columbia.  It comes at a cost to sportsman though.

Here’s a little information from the ODFW Budget that I bet a lot of sports anglers don’t know:

Enhancement Fund: The purpose of the Enhancement Fund is to enhance fisheries, optimize economic benefits of fisheries, and advance native fish conservation. Toward this end, Senate Bill 830 appropriated $1.5 million General Fund to the Enhancement Fund and provided the Fish and Wildlife Commission (Commission) the authority to establish, by rule, an annual and daily recreational fishing endorsement (Columbia River endorsement) for Columbia River Basin salmon, steelhead and sturgeon.

The Columbia River endorsement, established by the Commission in a rule adopted in October 2013, is expected to generate an additional $2 million Other Fund per biennium for the Enhancement Fund ($9.75 per annual license and $1.00 per day per daily license).

During the 2013-15 biennium, ODFW used the fund to help:

1) enhance off-channel commercial fisheries in the lower Columbia River (e.g., relocate and increase production of hatchery fish for release in off-channel areas; evaluate potential for expanding, in time and area, current offchannel area commercial fisheries; and complete feasibility studies necessary to establish new off-channel areas);

2) enhance monitoring of recreational and commercial fisheries;

3) monitor wild fish populations and the proportion of hatchery fish on spawning grounds;

4) enhance enforcement by the Oregon State Police Fish and Wildlife Division.

Transition Fund: The purpose of the Transition Fund is to provide financial assistance to individual commercial fishermen affected by the new Columbia River fish management and reform rules – including monies to help offset the cost to those individuals of alternative gear required for mainstem fisheries. Senate Bill 830 appropriated $0.5 million General Fund to the Transition Fund. During the 2013-15 biennium, ODFW used the fund to provide grants to assist counties that implement county programs providing compensation to impacted commercial fishers. 

In summary, the citizens of Oregon voted to remove gill nets, then the legislature turns around and appropriates $1.5 million in our tax dollars and the authority for the ODFW to add a surcharge to anglers of $9.75 per year, which will generate another $2 million annually, that will help pay for additional hatchery releases and moving other hatchery releases to the areas where gill netting is still an option. Plus another $.5 million to go directly to the commercial gill netting operations that were impacted by the change.

The good news in all of this is that the majority of the Columbia River is free of commercial gill nets and more of the endangered and threatened species can move through that area freely.

Issues specific to the North Santiam:  There have been recent regulation changes here on my home river that I have a problem with.

1) The increase in the daily limit of fin clipped Steelhead from 2 to 4 fish per day (year round) and non-fin clipped (wild?) from 2 to 4 fish per day in July and August.  Historical fish counts do not show a 100% increase in the number of fish in the system, so why increase the take rate by 100% over the past few years?  My suspicion is that the decision was an economic one, rather than scientific.  By increasing the catch and keep limit, you give the illusion that there are more fish, therefore, you will sell more licenses and tags (and endorsements) to the general public, and thus,  increase revenue for the ODFW.

2) The increase in the daily bag limit of fin clipped Trout (any size) from 2 to 5 fish per day. First of all, the ODFW does not stock the North Santiam River with trout.  They do however, stock the North Santiam with hatchery raised steelhead and salmon, which will stay in the river for up to a year or more before heading out to the ocean for a few years. So essentially, you are allowed to catch 5 juvenile steelhead or salmon per day.  Isn’t the reason those fish are raised is so they can go to the ocean and come back as adults?  Second, the general public seems to disregard the part of the regulation that says “fin-clipped”. I would venture to guess that 1,000’s of native rainbow and cutthroat trout are caught and kept each year.  I don’t know how many times I’ve floated past anglers on the river banks and they hold up their stringer full of trout to show off their catch and what they are holding is a handful of poached fish.  AND THEY ARE PROUD OF IT!

I can understand the urge to generate revenue, and I believe it will.  But these recent regulations will also put more anglers on the river. It will put more gear and bait anglers on the river which means more toxic bait and more big treble hooks, more inexperienced boaters, more traffic and crime (which always follows the crowds) at the boat ramps.  I just don’t see the overall benefit.

Sadly, the issues above are only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the plight of anadromous and wild fish species here in the Pacific Northwest.  Salmon and Steelhead are only in the river system for a year or so on their way out to the ocean and for a handful of months on their way back from the ocean.

The majority of their life cycle is spent in the salty sea where they face over-fishing from commercial (US and International) fishing fleets, polluted ocean conditions, competition for declining food sources, toxic waste and disease from ocean “salmon farming pens”,  and the list goes on and on.

There are flocks of protected cormorants consuming tons of out migrating juvenile fish each year.  There are packs of protected sea lions lined up at the fish ladders on the lower river hydro dams when they come back to spawn.

Throw in the issues related to hydroelectric dams limiting or outright blocking access to spawning grounds, logging and mining in the headwaters of numerous river systems and it is amazing that these fish have survived this long.

We can’t solve the problem by simply producing and releasing more hatchery fish into the system as many people suggest.  The streams, rivers and the ocean can only provide food and habitat for so many fish.  You end up hurting the endangered and threatened species even more with such thinking.

We’re not all going to agree on every issue and most of the time we get locked in that “us vs. them” mentality.  Hatchery vs. Wild, Gear vs. Fly, Sport vs. Commercial, Us vs. the World, etc., etc.

It’s said that we are the last generation that has the ability to keep the wild anadromous fish species from extinction.  No single individual can make a difference alone.  We have to join together and speak with one voice.

I belong to a couple groups that I don’t necessarily see eye to eye with, but I pay my annual dues each year because I like some of the things they do.  Specifically, the Coastal Conservation Association and the Northwest Steelheaders Association.  I would guess that the membership of those two groups is made up of about 80% gear and bait anglers.  But those two groups also put forth the bulk of the effort to get gill nets out of the mainstem Columbia.  They want some of what I want – cleaner rivers and oceans.  Their overall goal is to improve fish runs in general, which does help wild fish in the end.

Other groups that are more closely aligned with my views that I belong to are the Native Fish Society, Trout Unlimited and Wild Steelheaders United.  The latter being fairly new and holds a lot of promise.  They are attempting to take “us vs. them” out of the equation and bring everyone that cares about anadromous fish together to tackle the issues.  They have some big money behind them, smart people leading the way, and sound science to justify their cause. What I like most about the Wild Steelheaders United “Be Steelheaded” campaign is that they aren’t just screaming “what about me”, instead they’re standing up for the fish – plain and simple.


In the end, I just want my kids and grand kids to have the opportunity (if they choose) to feel that connection with a fish.  To do battle with one at the end of their line, maybe even hold one in their hands.  And if this generation is really successful, maybe they can knock it on the head (legally) and take it home to enjoy at the dinner table.

Tight Lines!




2 thoughts on “Unpopular at the Boat Ramp

  • I completely agree with you wondering why ODFW allows for retention of trout in the N Santiam and have sadly also witnessed people keeping every trout they catch, even with an adipose fin. Caught my 1st native winter steelhead on the N Santiam this March, this river is a gem and needs to be treated better than ODFW is treating it. Really needs to go to lures or flies only and catch and release for ALL trout, have noticed a dip in the number of cutthroat in the river the last couple years.

    • Josh,

      My apologies for being so late in approving and replying to your comment. ODFW has painted themselves into a corner on this issue. Even though they don’t plant “trout” in the Santiam(s), they have a big problem with hatchery raised summer steelhead that decide not to go to the saltwater and stay in the system and basically “become” trout. Now they have 1,000’s of fish that shouldn’t be there and the only way to get them out is to allow for harvest. The recent increase in harvest from 2 to 5 per day, is an obvious indication the the problem is getting worse. The solution is to stop planting hatchery raised steelhead in the North Santiam alltogether, but ODFW, not wanting to experience tar and feathering, will probably never submit to such “drastic” measures.

      You are not the only one to notice the decline in cutthroat numbers. I think part of it is due to poaching (intentional or ignorance of the regulations), but another big contributor is interaction between hatchery fish and the native species. You can’t dump 750,000 little feeding machines in the river each year (hatchery chinook and steelhead) and expect that there won’t be an impact on the local population. The is especially true this drought year when the “environment” all those fish live in was warmer than normal (lethal in some areas) and shrunk to 1/2 or a 1/3 of it’s normal size. I also think a component of the reduction in the cutthroat population has to do with the resurgence of the Coho run. A failed program from the mid-60’s to the early 70’s, somehow, the descendants of that program have rebounded. One of the primary drivers in stopping the program was the impact on the native cutthroat population specifically. They did the right thing in shutting it down 40+ years ago, but the monster is alive and well again today. “Don’t mess with Mother Nature” applies well here.


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