Row v. Wade

Wild fish from the bank: one way it’s always been done.

by Scott Sadil

Recent rule changes by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife prohibit coastal anglers from fishing from boats this season for winter steelhead. The move comes in response to dwindling numbers of wild fish in the state’s coastal rivers. Fishery managers view the ban as the surest way to protect and improve runs without resorting to a full coastwide closure on steelhead fishing.

The new rules arrive, of course, with their fair share of criticism. Opponents argue that there’s no concrete data to support a claim by WDFW that the ban on boat fishing, along with other selective gear regulations (no bait, single barbless hooks) will result in a fifty per cent reduction in the number of steelhead caught across coastal waters. Critics also complain that a boat-fishing ban has disproportionately adverse effects on bait anglers, fishing guides, and even rural communities that rely on tourist dollars in winter, while somehow favoring fly anglers, Spey casters, and other rivals from the dark side of the fence.

We’ve been here before.

Despite decades of evidence that a ban on boat fishing makes a river such as, say, the Deschutes, as good as they get for both steelhead and resident trout, there are anglers, even fly anglers, who would do away with the rule.  They imagine those fifty-yard drifts you can get at the end of a twenty-foot cast with your size four Sofa Pillow as the guide eases the boat downstream along impenetrable brush or cliff-lined banks, the way they recall doing on the Yakima, the Kettle, or the Río Palena. How quickly they forget that the fishing is good in direct proportion to how much river you simply can’t access despite the very best casts, stealth, or wading. Boats make it even easier to catch elusive winter steelhead, wild fish which move toward spawning grounds during challenging flows through watersheds tangled with more obstacles than a bill in Congress.

Coastal anglers in Washington have been relegated to bank fishing in an attempt to protect wild winter steelhead.

Commentators from all sides of the debate actually agree on the efficacy of the new rules. Writer Andy Walgamott, at their blogsite Northwest Sportsman, calls the ban on fishing from jet sleds, drift boats, rafts, and pontoons “a massive change, as plugging, side drifting, bobber dogging and other boat-based techniques are simply the most effective ways to catch winter steelhead.”

Unless I’m mistaken, that’s sort of the whole point.

Still, it’s not just gear and bait anglers who are affected. I recall the first time I heard a fly shop owner describe the use of indicators and egg patterns. “The steelhead set up right below the salmon redds,” he told me. “You back your boar or raft down past the redds and you can slaughter fish. We got eleven the other day.”

“That would work,” I agreed.

The real issue, need I say, are those dwindling runs of wild winter fish. Anything we can do to protect native stocks, even in regions where it remains legal to kill wild fish, seems vital to both fish and sport alike.

Full disclosure: I don’t think we should kill any more old-growth trees, either.

Besides, isn’t wading something we should encourage, as much a part of fishing as walking is to hunting? I remember meeting a genuine old-timer one evening on the Deschutes, a guy in his eighties named Fisher (seriously) who had crossed the tricky side channel out to an island stretched along one of my favorite runs. I hurried up the bank, panting a little after landing a fish that I’d had to chase far downriver; we exchanged pleasantries, then I offered Fisher next shot at the head of the run, where trout were still eagerly rising to low-light caddis.

Fisher, rod in hand, shook his head.

“Hard enough for me to get out here,” he said, wiggling a stick of driftwood, stabbed into the bank, that he had used to help him out to the island. “I’ve caught plenty of these guys. I just like coming out and seeing that they’re still here.”


In fall, Gray’s Angling Editor Scott Sadil loves to serve blackened fillets, gleaned from fresh-killed hatchery steelhead, placed in bowls of gazpacho made from garden-ripe tomatoes.