Rebounding runs on Washington's Skagit River prompt this month’s reopening

Puget Sound anglers who’ve been logging long miles to get their steelheading fix now have a much closer-to-home option on the Skagit and Sauk rivers, beginning tomorrow.

Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife (WDFW), having received approval from NOAA Fisheries on a proposed five-year steelhead fishery plan, will pry the lid off the spring catch-and-release fishery that’s been closed since 2010.

“You can guarantee that those of us who live on the OP are really excited for the opener,” says TU fisheries biologist John McMillan. “We need anglers to be advocates for steelhead, so the more wild fisheries we have, the better off we are in getting more people to help fight for these fish.”

For now, the Skagit system remains the one and only Puget Sound river with ESA-listed steelhead stocks to welcome anglers back into the flow. In addition to the catch-and-release sport fishery, the new management plan includes tribal ceremonial, subsistence, and commercial steelhead fisheries. In response, NOAA Fisheries West Coast Region Administrator Barry Thom said in an online statement that, “The state and the tribes struck the right balance. They’re providing some fishing opportunities but also making sure that we protect steelhead in the Skagit River for the future.”

The temporary season follows NOAA’s approval of a Resource Management Plan (RMP) crafted by WDFW and its tribal co-managers and submitted to the federal agency back in Nov. 2016. It’s also the product of wild steelhead returns that have improved since the fishery cratered in 2009.

“We’ve really pulled a lot of the stressors off that [Skagit] population and it’s responded very positively, including several years where we’ve had 8,000 to 9,000 fish,” says Nick Chambers, who works with TU’s Wild Steelhead Initiative. “That’s on par with some of those really good years we had back in the ’80s.”

Recent returns, however, have been less spectacular. Last year’s steelhead escapement on the Skagit was 5,900. This year’s has been forecasted at 5,200. Those numbers have led some to give the proposed spring season pause. There has also been talk of lawsuits in the wake of what others consider to be a premature opening. Despite some controversy, “We feel that there is absolutely a way to have this fishery without there being long-term negative impacts—if it’s structured properly,” Chambers says.

WDFW says it’s taking a conservative approach to the trial fishery by limiting time on the water and by requiring anglers to use single-point barbless hooks. Bait will be prohibited and night closures will also be in effect. The season is based largely on the number of wild steelhead forecast to return to the basin as well as the level of monitoring and enforcement required for the fishery, said Edward Eleazer, regional fish program manager for WDFW. The fishery could close early or have additional restrictions, so anglers should check the WDFW site before heading out.

Fishery managers have scheduled openings beginning April 14-15, and continuing April 18-22, and 25-29. The fishery includes the following areas:

-Skagit River, from the Dalles Bridge in the town of Concrete to the Cascade River Road Bridge in Marblemount. Fishing from a boat that is under power is prohibited.
-Sauk River, from the mouth to the Sauk Prairie Road Bridge in Darrington. Fishing from a boat equipped with an internal combustion motor is prohibited.