The Wild Steelhead Coalition

The Wild Steelhead Coalition

According to Jim Schmitz, the way to save Northwest steelhead is to whack every hatchery fish you catch.

  • By: Greg Thomas
Peeler Fmt

I think it takes a bit to get Jim Schmitz pissed off. For instance, I was recently interviewing Schmitz, vice president of the Seattle-based Wild Steelhead Coalition, when he realized that his house had just been robbed. He casually said, without hint of anger, “Hey, I should probably deal with this. Would it be OK if I give you a call later?”

But let me tell you this: If you bring up hatchery steelhead, Washington State’s 1974 Boldt Decision and the mismanagement of that state’s fisheries, you’ll see Schmitz’s hackles rise.

Schmitz is a steelhead junkie who I’ve known for 20 years, having met him when we both were single and living in Ketchum, Idaho, and he was stealing away to places like British Columbia’s Dean River to throw for chrome. He’s married now, and has a couple young kids, but his enthusiasm for steelhead and his dedication to preserving native fish stocks is stronger than ever.

When asked to describe his desire to fish chrome he said, “I love to hunt and ski and do other things, but there’s only one thing that makes me psychotic and that is steelhead.” Schmitz added, “My wife will tell you that I’m nuts, but steelhead fishing is mystical, an unbelievable thrill, just an amazing experience when you add in the places it takes you, the people you meet and the culture you join. It’s really, really cool.”

That kind of enthusiasm permeates the Wild Steelhead Coalition, but that doesn’t mean the future of the fish in Washington and beyond is guaranteed. In fact, there may be no more challenging testing ground than Washington, which makes the coalition’s successes and failures in the Evergreen State a possible template for the rest of the Pacific Coast.

Chief among those challenges are hatchery steelhead; management of steelhead by the Washington State Department of Fish and Game; loss of habitat due to massive urban and suburban sprawl, especially in western Washington; and overharvest of native fish stocks.

“A lot of our steelhead runs are at a critical low stage,” Schmitz said, “and we have to make decisions now that will influence the future. What will have the biggest positive impact is to work on future policy and regulations, including tribal regulations.

“One bummer is people are looking at the recent banner Columbia River steelhead runs and believing that things are fine,” Schmitz added. “But, if you take the hatchery component out of the picture all the wild runs are on a downward turn. It’s actually a pretty grim outlook.”

One way the coalition is influencing anglers in a positive way (for wild fish) is to encourage the harvest of hatchery steelhead, wherever anglers find them, whether in Idaho, Oregon or Washington. It’s true that we hardcore fly fishers hold to an ethic of catch-and-release, but in this case, according to Schmitz, it’s prime time to put the priest to work.

“The Wild Steelhead Coalition is behind a moratorium in Washington that requires catch-and-release on wild fish with only a few exceptions on the Olympic Peninsula,” Schmitz explained. “So that has encouraged people to start harvesting hatchery fish. That is a big component to our efforts. People think they are doing a favor by releasing those hatchery steelhead but, in fact, they should be harvesting them.”

While Schmitz can point to positive impacts from the coalition’s effort, he still comments with a grimace most of the time because this steelhead work is frustrating at best. Much of that has to do with Washington State’s 1974 Boldt Decision, which gave 50 percent of fish, shellfish and game harvest to Native American tribes. Since that decision Washington has faltered and the fisheries aren’t even a glimmer of what they were prior to the mandate.

“Some of this is a joke,” Schmitz lamented. “George Boldt had no good scientific information to base his decision on.” If Schmitz could go back in time and have access to the science available today he would provide it to Boldt so that the lamented judge “wouldn’t be such a negative icon to steelhead anglers today.”

Schmitz says, “Right now we are trying to watchdog everything to make sure management is done correctly. The organization is hopeful that state fish and wildlife and tribes can work together to make good, informed decisions on a system-by-system basis. The tribes and state have a lot of good science right now coming from some excellent biologists. Our goal is to have them share that information so that all entities can make informed decisions that best benefit the fish.”

While the Coalition’s efforts sometimes seem to be in vain, Schmitz assures me that the group is making headway and definitely minimizing damage to western steelhead fisheries. And he’s enjoying his volunteer work with the coalition, with deep understanding of its value.

“The main reason I’m in it is for my kids,” he said. “I have seen a handful of the rivers I used to fish—like the North Fork Stilliguamish, the Skykomish and the Kalama—become virtually nonexistent as steelhead streams. I want my kids to be able to fish for steelhead and I do think that the future is in the hands of people who love steelhead and the anglers who are also advocates. We have to convince people that anybody can be a voice for steelhead. We have 500 members and an 11-person board that is doing great work, but we need more people. Steelhead anglers don’t blink an eye to spend $40 or $50 on a license and I would hope they would do the same for us to save these fish.”

Schmitz, in an upbeat conclusion to our conversation, said, “If it hadn’t been for this small group working hard for the last 10 years in Washington State, I don’t know where steelhead would be. If the people in Olympia didn’t know we were watching over their shoulders for any wrong move, and being critical of their wrong decisions, we wouldn’t have any fish left.

“I’m actually still optimistic,” Schmitz added. “Habitat and hatcheries are the two biggest hurdles for the success of wild steelhead . . . and those things can be fixed. Driving a hatchery truck up to a river and dumping fish in is like poisoning the water with gas. It is pure pollution. Those hatchery fish are a stress that wild steelhead don’t need. But, steelhead are resilient—if you protect them and their habitat, they will come back.”

Visit the Wild Steelhead Coalition at www.wildsteelheadcoalition.org