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Wild Steelhead – Now or Never

by | Nov 10, 2021 | 0 comments

I told myself I wasn’t going to cry writing this, but like a lot of things, it didn’t quite work out that way.

I caught my first wild steelhead twenty years ago this fall.  That fish took a Green Butt Skunk on the swing, but that doesn’t really matter.  It also took my breath away, and changed the trajectory of both my fishing and professional lives, which matters very much. 

The year was 2001, and there happened to be an extraordinary return of steelhead to my adopted home waters of the Columbia River system.  Over 630,000 steelhead passed over Bonneville Dam that year, an anomaly never seen before or since.  Just under 24% of those were wild fish.  Still, that was over 149,000 wild steelhead in the Columbia system.  For a kid trying to catch a steelhead, it was a stroke of good fortune that will never be lost on me.  For perspective, this year, only around 70,800 steelhead have crossed over Bonneville Dam, and only just over 25,000 are wild fish.  The smallest run in recorded history.

I hooked a few steelhead that fall long ago.  When winter came to my home in Montana I couldn’t wait for the next summer run to enter the rivers again.  I tied more flies, bought more gear, and made a couple of friends who were also newly minted steelhead nuts. I read every book I could find, perhaps none greater than Trey Combs’ masterwork, “Steelhead Fly Fishing”.  From those hallowed pages I learned about sink tips, Spey flies, classic hairwing patterns, and legendary steelhead rivers like the Dean, Thompson, Skeena, North Umpqua, and Deschutes.  I also learned that steelhead fishing wasn’t what it used to be, even back then, and that steelhead were in serious trouble in plenty of places thanks to a number of human caused factors. 

I ended up back in college the next year to start work on a graduate degree in Civil Engineering.  I wanted nothing more than to help restore rivers for the fish I loved and the program I enrolled in allowed me to study not only engineering but also relevant earth sciences, and fisheries biology and management.  I fished a fair bit during grad school, including a few trips west for summer steelhead.  Looking back now, each encounter with a wild steelhead brought me closer to life choices that I would eventually make;  build a career in stream restoration, move to the Pacific Northwest, help fix salmon and steelhead habitat, work for wild fish conservation and preservation, and fish for steelhead whenever I could…

Along the way I had the good fortune to learn a lot about steelhead fishing, biology, and the complex social system that drives or limits recovery efforts.  A lot of what I learned made me sad, and concerned for the future of wild steelhead.  I met other people that were as much or more passionate and devoted to steelhead conservation and recovery.  I was inspired by those people and often did what I could to lend a hand in their efforts.  Looking back, I probably didn’t do enough.

Recently, a person suggested to me that it’s too late for us to stand up for wild steelhead.  That may be true.  That may have been true 20 years ago.  But, I had to respectfully disagree.  For me, personally, I can’t give up the fight in good conscience.  At this point, I haven’t cast a fly into a steelhead river in over three years.  That has been my own choice.  But I’ve never forgotten those fish, and I never will.  I simply can’t.  They have left an indelible mark on me.  That mark keeps me pushing forward, perhaps a little like a steelhead on its way back upstream.  I can’t give up because the steelhead won’t give up.  I struggle regularly to put my sorrow aside, and keep trying to do what I can for these incredible fish and their home rivers.  If nothing else, the “Now or Never” message from the Wild Steelhead Coalition has reinvigorated me and reminded me not to give up.

At this point in my journey I’m not doing what I can to help wild steelhead because I want or need to catch another one.  That ship has sailed, and I consider myself among the lucky few who have met with more than my fair share of steelhead in my lifetime.  But that doesn’t mean I don’t want to see rivers teeming with wild steelhead and salmon again.  I stand up for wild fish because I know a river filled with them is a healthy river that is also providing a good home for all of the other plants and animals that make up an intact ecosystem.  I stand up for wild fish because I have friends who began angling years after me, after the runs had already dwindled, who want more than anything to experience a steelhead for a few moments just to let it swim away again.  I stand up for wild fish because someday I’d like to take my young son out west and show him my favorite steelhead water, and, if he wants me to, I’d like to show him how to swim a fly through a sparkling run and know that there is at least a chance that he may connect with the fish that I connected with for the first time so many years ago.  Steelhead changed my life for the better, and I know I am not alone in that sentiment.

If you are a person who has been standing up for wild steelhead and their habitats for years, I thank you from the bottom of my heart, and I urge you not to give up hope.  Don’t give up on the fish.  If you are a person who has had the good fortune to experience a wild steelhead, and have wondered what you as one person can do to help, I suggest to you that something is always better than nothing, and that supporting organizations like the Wild Steelhead Coalition is a good place to start.  If you are a person who hopes to one day have the chance to experience a wild steelhead, I urge you too to get involved.  Know that when your dream finally does come true it’s likely that you may be moved in a way far more profound than you ever imagined that a fish could move you.

Please, Join Us.  For the Steelhead.

To learn more about the current state of wild steelhead,

or to donate to the Wild Steelhead Coalition, please visit

https://www.wildsteelheadcoalition.org/

Take Care and Fish On,

Matt

… Now or Never

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