Oooh-Ooh, That Smell…

In Washington by steelheaders

By Bill Herzog

Can’t you smell that smell? It starts with the first real spring day, usually in early March. It rises to a crescendo in mid April, when hard rains or even a trip to midtown cannot dampen the olfactory onslaught. I’m talking about the tree bloom scent from alder, cottonwood, just the wild flowers in general that produce that ultra-awesome whiff of spring we all love. It tells us winter has entered stage 5. Do not resuscitate.


They say smell is the best trigger of a memory. Bread baking in Grandma’s kitchen. Fresh cut grass on the baseball field. You feel me? That sweet, tree bloom scent that seemingly permeates everything during spring immediately brings me back to the same places like a cold slap…the sublime Skagit River and her little sister down south, the Nisqually. And with it, the finest memories I own from steelheading in Washington State.


Nowadays, that smell just makes me sad. Closures and diminished runs took away my two favorite places, in a relatively short period of time.


What happened? I have a few theories.


Let’s go back to 1980. A mere 30 minutes from my porch was the Nisqually. We went nearly every day after work and both days on the weekends. The steelheading was so good, each day no matter the duration of our trip, from a few hours, to all day. The result was always multiple fish for all of us.


We used nothing more than half-ounce red and white Stee Lee spoons. We were aware of the coastal rivers and their Lorelei call, but why would anyone want to drive four hours for less fish?


Don’t assume for a second this great fishing went unnoticed. From 1982 to 1985, pressure went exponentially through the roof, case in point only a few drift boats a day launching at the old Tank Crossing to well over sixty on a Saturday in just a few years. Average thirty boats, day in, day out, from the hamlet of Yelm to tidewater.


Mind you, you could kill two wild steelhead per person per day, and that’s just what we did. There were no hatchery steelhead introduced to the Nisqually. I say we because I, along with my partners, whacked so many wild fish, mostly egg heavy hens, we will be going to the warm place when we die.


It was legal. There were plenty of them…Every day we would go down to the Handicap Access where the boats pulled out. Each boat had four to six dead fish, and the Nisqually had a greater ratio of hens to bucks, so most if not all were females in the fish boxes.


Do some math: If you figure a minimum of two guys per boat, four dead steelhead each boat, times thirty…that’s 120 fish per day, the season went from mid March through April (there were LOTS of black and white mint fish running strong through April 30…)..figure 45 days, the river was rarely unfishable…that’s a bit over five thousand wild steelhead taken from the river in spring.


Not tough to figure out what happened to them. It was not habitat. The upper river is nearly pristine thanks to Fort Lewis military grounds. There was a very tiny percentage of tribal fishing, so guess what? We anglers are getting the big blame — and rightly so — for the Nisqually crash.


Not loggers. Not land developers. Not tribal netting. We did it. We killed too many. Us.


The Nisqually’s fall was so swift, so severe, it went in just six years. There was an experimental catch and release season in 1988, but so few fish returned it too was shut down. It’s been nearly thirty years closed now. The Nisqually is barely alive with a return of 300 to 500 fish.


For something completely different, we would drive 160 miles north to try another “new” fishery, the big, bad Skagit River, such a far cry physically from our smaller, intimate streams like the Carbon and Green. And what a place. Mountains that look like the Alps, mile long runs, fast, clear water, it was intimidating and admittedly took a few trips to decipher how to break down the big water. But when we did…wow.


Old Joe Butorac (the man who made the Rag steelhead drift lure and Skagit regular) used to tell us the Skagit is neither a Puget Sound river nor a Peninsula-type stream. It is its own river, unique like no other.


He was right. Sadly, I did not fly fish back then, but no regrets. Skagit wild spring steelhead struck Little Cleo spoons and Eddie Pope Hot Shot plugs like pure silver supercharged evil. The drift from Rockport to Concrete was shared by a few others, but there was almost no pressure to speak of. When the Nisqually and other Puget Sound rivers slipped, we turned almost all our attentions to the Skagit from late February to the end of April.


I know the term gets overuse, but it was magical.

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I learned the Skagit and its fish so well, fell in love with the whole scene so deeply I became a steelhead guide, just for this place. I wanted to spend every moment up there. Guiding was my excuse. From 1990 to 2000, I lived and worked in Rockport. “Send my mail to the Rockport jail…” The whole experience — the unbelievable high quality fishing, hanging with the greatest steelheaders to ever slip on waders, the scenery…and the smell. Boy, was it strong on the Skagit in April.


Every spring was a bit different, some years off the charts, some we had to work a bit harder, but the fish were always there for us. Even when the pressure increased, seemingly twice as many anglers every spring, no matter. It was the best of times.


But things were happening that had to have negative effects on the fish. We watched locals daily fish under power (illegal), fish with fresh sand shrimp (really illegal) and kill double digit numbers of wild steelhead every day!!!


Yes, we took boat numbers, vehicle plates, time of day, boat descriptions. My clients had to endure this poaching, sometimes at close range. They asked constantly why are those boats hooking so many more fish than us.


We called the Poaching Hotline daily for 27 days consecutive in 1997. Not one — let me repeat that — not one game warden showed up. Ever.


The guilty locals would clean their steelhead on the god damned boat ramp in Rockport daily, and yell across the campground (so all the guides, fly anglers and respectable, law abiding anglers could hear) how great the sand shrimp bite was at Leaning Cedar. The stores in Rockport and Concrete would fill their coolers up morning and evening with fresh sand shrimp. Our angry complaints to store owners only got us the “it ain’t illegal to sell them” response.


Rampant poaching. Zero enforcement. More anglers exponentially hooking fish. Boom goes the dynamite…the run plummeted in a few years, our favorite fishery, adored by so many, was kaput by the turn of the century.


But the Skagit, unlike the Nisqually, is holding its own, so much so we may get to fish it again…soon.


However, this time we need to do it right, and that means regulating ourselves, adequate enforcement, and embracing catch and release as the future of our wild steelhead fisheries.


Like the trees that bloom every spring to produce that omnipresent scent, hope springs eternal that due to the efforts of the Wild Steelheaders, Occupy Skagit and several other hard working groups, we steelheaders may get to enjoy our spring smells in the places we enjoy them the most, on a Puget Sound wild steelhead river.

Yes, that wonderful spring smell can be found while casting away on the few steelhead rivers left open on the Peninsula, but it’s just not the same without the Skagit and the Nisqually Rivers.

Bill Herzog