Adult winter steelhead returns have dipped too low, forcing fishing closures at two hotspots on the Wallace and Skykomish rivers.
The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife issued the rule change for Dec. 30 through Feb. 15 to include all species, according to a WDFW news release.
The targeted areas are near the Wallace and Reiter Ponds hatcheries. One spans from the railroad trestle downstream of the U.S. Highway 2 bridge, to 200 feet upstream of the Wallace hatchery water intake structure roughly five miles east of Sultan on Wallace River. The other reaches 1,000 feet downstream and 1,500 feet upstream of the Reiter Ponds outlet on the Skykomish River.
“We have very little adult returns to the (Wallace) hatcheries at this point,” said WDFW district biologist Jennifer Whitney. “Hopefully we get enough broodstock in the future, so the program can continue.”
Unfortunately, the best spots to fish, the two areas affected by the rule change, are usually right by hatcheries where fish are forced to sit and wait, Whitney said.
Seventy-two adults — roughly 30 percent of the agency’s goal — have returned as of Jan. 12, according to fish and wildlife’s hatchery escapement report.
Whitney said the low numbers are not a major concern yet, although to worry is normal. She said she expects the rains in next week’s weather forecast will push more of the missing fish further up the river.
Whitney said WDFW needs to release nearly 289,500 smolt, or young trout, back into the two rivers this year, starting April 15. About 300 adults must return from the ocean and make their way back to the hatchery this winter for that to work, she said.
Whitney said she assumes roughly half of all adults returning are female, which produce on average 2,500 eggs, or up to 4,000 if they are bigger, Whitney said. Because a certain number of those eggs won’t ever hatch, more than enough adults must return to meet the goals for smolt counts, she said.
Whitney said fish and wildlife staff has seen many larger adults come in this year, and every year is a little different. Most Steelhead spend 3-4 years out in open ocean, but it varies depending on the fish. Size has to do with whether ocean conditions were more or less favorable, she said.
If enough adults return before Feb. 15, fish and wildlife will likely lift the rule change.
Lifelong fisherman Michael Zimmerman lives about three minutes from the Skykomish River, and 10-15 minutes from the Wallace River. The spots have become his two go-to rivers for the past six years. His great-grandfather cast in the same areas where Zimmerman now fishes with his son every year.
Mid-season closures are “always a bummer,” Zimmerman said; especially ones that are so close and hold so much meaning. This year, there have been so many regulation revisions that he has stayed indoors more than he would like, not wanting to risk a ticket or loss of license because of a mistake interpreting the rules.
Zimmerman said he has a profound respect for the “elusive” steelhead that end up on his line, and primarily will release any caught. “It’s a pretty magical experience” when one catches the hook, the angler said. He said he supports any emergency measures that ensure enough fish come back.
“If people want to protect the fisheries, everyone has to be held accountable,” he said.