There’s a Reason We Call Winter “Bitter”

 

Winter is when most sensible fishermen stay indoors; keep in mind if there’s one thing us steelheaders agree on, we’re not sensible.

And I’m not just talking about sportanglers. Commercial fishermen don’t have much to pursue either, but how about those hard working crabbers? They certainly earn their money! Many of them are TV reality stars now, but I think even they get a bit uncomfortable hamming it up in front of the cameras. Gotta love that media!

Well, what I’ve discovered over the decades is when fishermen are trapped indoors, it’s usually not a good thing. We start assuming, we start arguing and we have too much time on our hands so we take to the online venues and start telling each other how we can fix everything- guilty as charged!

Probably not so ironic that this is the time of year when the sport fleet had typically started battling it out with the commercial gillnet fleet for the spring Chinook allocation on the mainstem Columbia. Each year, with few exceptions, a flock of sport anglers and a bevy of gillnetters would square off head-to-head at the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife Headquarters. Testimony on allocation typically took up the entire day’s agenda. Who deserved how much and their justification as to why.

Bob Rees with a Gorge spring Chinook

The argument is far from over, but for those that pay particular attention to current policy, mainstem gillnet opportunity has made way for a sportfishing priority for spring and summer Chinook, but allowed for significant opportunity on fall Chinook, the most abundant of all the runs of returning salmon, for the gillnet fleet. The social, economic and biological reason for that is, although the sportfleet is becoming more efficient at harvesting large numbers of the fall-run beasts, there are still ample numbers of Chinook available that wouldn’t get harvested if the commercial fleet didn’t get after them.

Before you start emailing the heck out of me, I’ve heard all the arguments and of course I STAND STRONG for a sportfleet priority, but the point I’m trying to make is this: If we had ample numbers of all runs of salmon on the mainstem Columbia, would we really be arguing for the few remaining numbers that now return to North America’s once greatest salmon-producing river ever?

Upon reading the history of early settlers and their techniques for mining, logging and agriculture, the landscape has been transformed so dramatically, it seems highly unlikely that our watersheds will every produce the carrying capacities they once did before European settlement. We don’t use water cannons to blast away hillsides to look for gold anymore, we don’t create splash dams once used to transport riparian harvested logs downstream to mills and we don’t pitchfork spawning salmon off of their redds to fertilize our fields anymore because we learned about how devastating these practices were on wild runs of salmon. Of course we can’t overlook overharvest by the commercial and sportfleet either. We’re all to blame.

As far as natural resource practices from “the good ‘ol days,” we can chalk that up to ignorance. We don’t do those things anymore because we’re schooled on the ways that past practices weren’t good for fish. Although we don’t blatantly destroy salmon habitat and interrupt fragile lifecycles these days, we don’t have the historical carrying capacities to produce the runs we once had, so we’re stuck with what we got, at least for another century and if and only if we still change the way we use our landscape.

Stream temperatures are still lethal for fish, dam operations still create unnatural flow conditions that keep juvenile salmon in the slow or no-moving reservoirs instead of flushing them downstream and the likely over-use of pesticides is compromising ecological function of our aquatic ecosystems, just to start. The problem now is, in most cases, salmon are dying a slow death, instead of seeing them throwing themselves head first into Grand Coulee, or floating belly up when a splash dam is released. Still, we can’t plead ignorance any longer as an excuse.

I’ve conspiracy theorized before that the bitterness between the fishers (gillnetters, tribes and sportanglers) is just what big industry had hoped for. Keep the infighting going, so we can maintain status quo, and keep our industry whole. Admittedly, putting the gillnet versus sportfleet conflict to bed likely won’t all of a sudden change how the two groups will work together for the betterment of all, but there are important lessons to be learned through this process. There are wounds to be healed and it may take more than a generation to do it. Hopefully, leaders on all sides of the salmon crisis will rise from the ashes, heal those wounds and move forward so we can all gather inside and knock down the bitter cold with a hot toddy. And with that, Happy Holidays Everybody!