Deschutes Steelheading: Now a Moral Issue?

As local anglers know, the 2017/2018 steelhead season was bleak, adult returns were one of the lowest on record.  After some initial optimism for at least a modest rebound, this season now looks to be even worse.  A few days ago Oregon and Washington lowered their forecast for returns and closed the Columbia River and parts of some tributaries to steelhead fishing for the rest of the year.  We anglers are now faced with a moral issue: even if most of the Deschutes remains open, can we afford to further stress and potentially kill the small numbers of wild fish that do return?  See below to make your own informed decision.

Here is a graph showing all steelhead (wild and hatchery) that have passed upstream through Bonneville Dam on the Columba through August 26.  You can see updates here. The black line is the average for the past 10 years, the blue line is last year, and the red line is this year.

Steelhead Returns

Here is the chart for wild steelhead returns.

Wild Returns

As of August 26 only 21 hatchery and 5 wild steelhead have been counted at Sherars Falls below Maupin.  None have been counted at the Pelton fish trap at the base of the Pelton Round Butte dam complex near Madras.

As someone who loves steelhead fishing on the Deschutes this is simply depressing.  I found this quote from the recent ODFW press release announcing the closure to be bracing:

“Steelhead returns are well below expectations and this latest update just doesn’t support allowing the fishery to continue as is. I encourage people to explore other angling opportunities during this conservation closure period, and if a person does happen to intercept a steelhead it is critical that they do their utmost to ensure its survival by using best fishing practices,” said Tucker Jones, manager of ODFW’s Ocean Salmon and Columbia River Program.

The bottom line is that steelhead in the entire Columbia Basin are in dire shape and while sport anglers are the least of the problems causing their drastic decline, we do make an impact.  We all know that wild fish are much more likely to strike than hatchery fish and even with best practices we do stress and occasionally kill wild fish who are now in survival mode.

Pete Soverel and David Moskowitz of The Conservation Angler recently published an excellent 3 part article in The Osprey titled “Managing Columbia River Steelhead to Extinction” that documented the numerous factors that have contributed to many runs being on the verge of extinction.  In the final article (May 2018) they discuss the negative impact that sport anglers have on wild steelhead (5% to 10% mortality on released fish and lowered ability to spawn) and call for a number of changes including a moratorium on sport angling especially in cold water refuges.  The Deschutes is certainly such a refuge although they do not specifically mention it.

There’s no way around it, steelheading on the Deschutes is now a moral issue.  Can we justify continuing the pursuit of these wonderful fish or do we do all we can to help ensure their survival when they are clearly in peril?  By the way, steelhead returns on the Rogue this season are above their 10 year average.