A solid first step

In Washington by Nick Chambers

Wild Steelheaders United praises submission of new steelhead management plan, process of reopening Skagit River for catch-and-release wild steelhead angling


As we head into the Thanksgiving holiday, recent developments in Washington State give wild steelhead anglers and advocates extra reason for being thankful.


The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife has prepared a new plan for managing winter/spring run steelhead in the Skagit River to allow both recreational angling and tribal harvest.


The plan was submitted recently to NOAA Fisheries, the federal agency responsible for ensuring that species listed under the Endangered Species Act are managed for recovery. NOAA must review and approve the plan before it can be implemented.


The remarkable rebound of the Skagit’s wild steelhead is what makes the proposed fishery possible. Wild steelhead have made a strong comeback in the Skagit with an average of nearly 8600 wild fish returning to the river the past four years.


The Skagit’s wild steelhead were listed as “threatened” under the ESA in 2007. The catch-and-release sport fishing season for steelhead in this river has been closed since 2010.


Wild Steelheaders United has been working since its inception to re-open the legendary Skagit for spring run steelhead angling. WSU applauded the Department and tribal co-managers for working together to develop the plan.


Wild Steelheaders United’s Science Director, John McMillan, said, “This is an important milestone in the process of reinstating the Skagit River spring catch and release steelhead fishery. It is a solid first step towards realizing the return of one of Washington’s truly historic steelhead fisheries, and reflects the resilience of wild steelhead in the Skagit.”


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Wild steelhead in the Skagit now represent one of the most abundant wild winter steelhead populations in the lower 48 states. Recently, the population of wild steelhead in the Skagit has been as abundant (and more abundant, in some years) than the vaunted wild steelhead of the Quillayute River system, which includes the Sol Duc, Bogachiel and Calawah rivers on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula.


McMillan added, “A well-managed wild steelhead fishery in the Skagit will not only provide new, sustainable fishing opportunity in the Puget Sound area, it also should help relieve the heavy angler pressure on the Olympic Peninsula’s wild steelhead rivers.”



“While it is gratifying to have reached this milestone in the campaign to re-establish a wild steelhead catch-and-release sport fishery, we are not across the finish line yet,” said Nick Chambers, lead organizer for Wild Steelheaders United in Washington.


Before the fishery becomes a reality, NOAA must complete an Environmental Impact Statement and determine that the fishery complies with the ESA. Chambers said Wild Steelheaders United will participate in the required public process to ensure that the plan has the necessary conservation measures to pass ESA review and maintain a healthy wild steelhead population while providing quality angling opportunity.



While the improved prospects for a re-opened steelhead fishery in the Skagit are exciting, now is no time for anglers to relax. Chambers noted that anglers need to keep the matter front-and-center before WDFW and NOAA.


“The required analysis will take up to a year, but can and should be completed in time for a 2018 season,” Chambers said. “Anglers have waited a long time to once again fish for wild steelhead on the Skagit, and we must be vigilant to make sure another year does not slip away without this opportunity being renewed.”