Our friend and favorite author Chris Santella had this opinion piece published in he Oregonian and Oregonlive.com recently.
Every March, I begin looking forward to late summer afternoons at the mouth of the Deschutes River. The kaleidoscope of kite sails around Hood River and the creosote smell of railroad ties in The Dalles signal that I’m getting close to once again, experiencing world-class fishing — swinging flies for wild summer steelhead on a majestic western river.
The Deschutes is celebrated for its run of steelhead. These fish hatch in the river, grow to the size of a smallish trout, pass through The Dalles and Bonneville dams, then head down the Columbia to the sea, and spend a year (or more) feeding in the North Pacific before returning to procreate in their natal river—a truly epic journey. Averaging six to eight pounds, native Deschutes steelhead may not rival the size of their brethren on the Olympic Peninsula or British Columbia, but their aggressiveness toward a fly or lure and their speed and power once hooked are legendary. Not easy to fish, steelhead are sometimes referred to as the fish of a thousand casts, and once you’ve felt the fish’s unmistakable grab, it’s positively addictive. “The tug is the drug,” and in catch-and-release fishing, returning an unharmed native fish back to the river makes for a very good day, indeed.
Alas, it’s not a good time to be a steelhead, nor a steelhead angler. Thanks to drought and extreme heat, water temperatures in the lower 40 miles of the Deschutes are dangerously warm, exceeding 70 degrees some days. That’s prompted fishing closures on the Deschutes (and some other rivers) after 2 pm when river temperatures reach their maximum. Warm water holds less oxygen, exacerbating the stress that fish experience when hooked to often fatal levels.
Worse yet, the number of steelhead returning to the Deschutes and other Columbia Basin tributaries is at a historic low. To put returns in perspective: in a good year more than 130,000 steelhead pass through Bonneville Dam by August 1; this year, only 15,000 have made it that far. Some groups, including The Conservation Angler have called for the closure of the recreational steelhead season until returns improve.
There are many factors contributing to declines. Certainly, ocean conditions are poor. But there’s also commercial fishing operations on the Columbia River that unintentionally catch steelhead; competition from hatchery fish; historical spawning habitat access blocked by dams; and compromised spawning grounds. The impact of catch-and-release fly fishing with barbless hooks and swift release to the river is fairly negligible, yet the impact adds up as some wild fish are caught more than once.
And at a time when the future of these iconic fish hangs in the balance, even one fish that’s unintentionally killed by recreational angling seems one fish too many. It seems only fair that I should do my part.
Since early July, when the first pods of steelhead returned to their birth waters, I’ve resisted the Deschutes’ clarion call. Some have suggested that I hike to the pools I would usually be casting across as the sun begins to fade behind the canyon walls to the west, praying for that tug. But I can’t bear the temptation. Others have suggested that I fish but clip the point off my hook. There would still be the thrill of the grab. But it’s not quite the same.
For now, I’ll monitor the river conditions and dam counts in hopes that fishing might be an ethically sound decision sometime down the road.
And take a small bit of comfort in thinking that perhaps I’m doing the right thing.