A new battle cry for a grassroots movement to improve steelhead management without new regulations.
By Bill Herzog
Last fall on Oregon’s upper Deschutes, some of the most influential minds on wild steelhead gathered in Maupin for a “Steelhead Summit.” Maupin, center-punched into the heart of Oregon, is a tiny desert town famous for two things: trout and steelhead fishing and being a destination for folks in the government’s witness protection program.
Well, one of those statements is true, anyway.
At this gathering I was privileged to share cocktail hour circles with fellows who know more about the state of our wild steelhead runs here in the Northwest than possibly anyone. John McMillan, Nick Chambers, JD Richey, Dwayne Meadows. And sitting at the head of the table was the patriarch of our silver-scaled family, Brian O’Keefe. Anyone who has spent time in the Northwest is familiar with Brian’s photography, writing skills and global angling adventures.
Most of our conversations involved throwing darts at the idea board for the future of wild steelhead management and fishing opportunities. It pays to be a good listener at these types of gatherings, as often the best ideas are not your own.
Brian had the look in his eye of a man who just discovered fire. He took a long pull off his brew, set it on the table, raised his hand, and said three words:
“Four Is Enough.”
This laid a blanket of quiet over the round table. Say again?
He stood up, repeating with more emphasis, “Four Is Enough! That’s our movement for wild steelhead! Four Is Enough!”
What do you mean, four is enough?
“Let’s face it. Passing new angling regulations is several levels past difficult — and not a quick process. It’s almost impossible to make everyone happy. Customs run deep in the steelheader’s realm.”
Brian was on roll. “What if we could change a major aspect, habits if you will, about steelheading without changing techniques, open times and areas, or gear restrictions, and all get behind something that would be unquestionably beneficial everywhere wild steelhead are found? Something that all anglers — fly, drift gear, bobber/bait, plugs, spoons, jigs — everyone could get behind?”
“What if we start a movement to only hook and land, say, four wild steelhead per day? This can be for an individual, or it can be the total for those in rafts, drift boats and jet sleds. I mean, for decades Atlantic salmon anglers in most waters on the East Coast and Europe may only hook and land one salmon per day, and then you are done. You must be satisfied with your sport. Does it work? Hell yes!”
“Really, how many steelhead does an angler need to catch in a day? Usually one scratches the itch for most of us, but so often now I see anglers, gear and fly — especially the indicator crowd — using catch-and-release as an abusive tool on those rare days when there are good numbers and willing steelhead. Anglers are now using the most effective techniques in history. This means we have good fishing for a day or two when the rivers drop in, and usually only for the first several boats or bank anglers. As rivers continue to drop and clear, success diminishes with most fish already having been hooked and released.”
This is getting good.
“Imagine now, if we all agree to limit ourselves to four steelhead per day — that is way better than one or two, but not a ridiculous number in double digits. Four steelhead played and landed per person or per boat would still mean a great day, yet there would be biting fish left for other anglers who also deserve a shot. Obviously there would be many days that four fish would not be a reality anyway, but this would be a start of something really cool!”
Brian O’Keefe, ladies and gentlemen. Perhaps we can self-police ourselves, make fishing better and improve the health of our wild steelhead runs at the same time.
I could personally provide dozens of anecdotes about hooking too many steelhead when the opportunity arises, but I’ll go no further back than this February at the Portland Sportsmen’s Show. I was having a spirited gab with a well known Forks guide, a great guy and skilled angler. We were naturally talking about how slow and scary it was that the early wild fish were just not making a “normal” showing in the Quillayute system. He said that finally a decent shot of fresh fish came up the Sol Duc after the last rain event. Fishing was awesome the first day, he said, and his boat landed 19 steelhead. The next day, half that amount. By day three, with rivers dropping and fewer moving fish, his boat hooked three fish in the following five days. The bite, he said, “Didn’t hold up.”
I asked him if there were dozens of boats on that stretch, all using the most effective techniques, covering every square foot of river and hooking nearly every aggressive steelhead, would the “Four is enough” idea slow the action down? He agreed that it would make a huge difference. I then asked him if he could tell me about steelhead number 6 or fish number 12. How did they fight? No answer. Now ask any angler, gear or fly, about the one steelhead they caught after two days of persistence. Chances are very good you get a wide-eyed tale with details from hookset to beach.
Four encounters with a steelhead is double what most would call a fantastic day. Practicing Four Is Enough would also leave more players, green fish, for anglers the next day. It’s a start.
Four Is Enough.
Is this really a novel concept, a brand new way of practicing conservation? During that trip to Maupin, I read this passage from a dog-eared, yellowed, cover-less fishing book in my room:
…the concentration of new fishermen is immensely greater while the amount and nature of fishable water has neither increased or substantially improved. Increasing emphasis must be placed on taking and hooking fewer fish so each angler has his chance. With these restrictions, the fisherman must gather himself the greatest sport from fewer fish…
Sound familiar? This book was written in 1950 by an East Coast trout fisherman who watched his once lonely and productive rivers become significantly more crowded every spring. You could just cut and paste this sentimentality into present-day steelhead angling. If we do not “up our game” and give some sort of sanctuary to our wild steelhead, we can all plan on golfing a lot more in the spring.
The Four Is Enough revolution will be difficult at first. We have to take the leap of faith and hope that others will be inspired and begin a change of habit. And there will be some who say this is nothing more than a ploy by the fly fishermen to make rivers their own. But if gear and fly fishers don’t lock arms on the issue of saving our wild steelhead, it will be folly. We stand or fall together.
Four Is Enough.
Let’s not leave our future in the hands of glacial-speed rulemakers. Let’s take this idea for a test drive this March and April. We can do this, as none of us knows more than all of us. I think Spock said it best, the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few. There will be opposition, naysayers, those who will still try for the big numbers when opportunity manifests. But peer pressure is powerful — if we all commit ourselves to practicing “Four Is Enough,” change for the better is inevitable.
In Forks. In Tillamook. In Brookings. In Smithers. In Clarkston. On the Hoh. The Sandy. The Sol Duc. The Wynoochee. The Grande Ronde. The Smith and Clackamas. We could make this international, carry the Four Is Enough flag to the great Skeena in the fall. And in 2018, on the Fourth Corner’s crown jewel, the Skagit.
We have never been so in touch, so easily, with so many other anglers. We can do this. For the future. Rivers are our sanctuary from stress, but even with their unique beauty, without steelhead, well…
Four is enough.