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THE WENATCHEE RIVER

I first read about fishing the Wenatchee River for summer steelhead from fly-fishing legends such as Bob Arnold and Steve Raymond. Reading their tales of swinging lightly dressed flies on floating lines for free rising autumn steelhead left a remarkable impression on my mind and a desire to fish it like the pioneers of the past.
 
I went to the Wenatchee River in 1997 for a day of fishing, however after a long period of low run return years, the river was left sterile of fish and my hopes of catching a magnificent Wenatchee steelhead soon went out the window for me. That year, Wenatchee River steelhead was listed as an Endangered Species and the river was closed to steelhead fishing for over a decade. To this day, Wenatchee River wild steelhead is still listed "threatened" within the Upper Columbia. The Wenatchee falls within the Upper Columbia distinct population segment, which are comprised of all naturally produced steelhead as well as six hatchery populations from the Yakima River upstream to the US border.
 
To this day, Wenatchee River wild steelhead are still listed "threatened" within the Upper Columbia. The Wenatchee falls within the Upper Columbia distinct population segment, which are comprised of all naturally produced steelhead as well as six hatchery populations from the Yakima River upstream to the US border. The status of Steelhead in the Wenatchee has been up and down over the past few years. In 1997 they were listed as endangered but then upgraded to threatened in 2006. A court reversal downgraded the status to endangered in 2007 and then again only to have their current status changed back to threatened in 2009.
 

Wenatchee River Wild Steelhead

As far as my desire of catching a Wenatchee River Steelhead, the best I could hope for was working a stint with the Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife. I got to hold many adult and juvenile steelhead that we had caught, sampled, and tagged in traps and nets; but not with a fly. The work was fun but bittersweet at the same time, knowing that these fish were experiencing an extremely difficult situation with low survival rates.

However, time changes everything and a decade later, the Columbia Basin steelhead has greatly rebounded from their plight during the 1990s. Most biologists cite improved ocean conditions as the main factor influencing increased returns, however freshwater survival has improved as well, likely due to increased spill at main stem dams when steelhead smolts are heading toward the Pacific.

 Data…there is no denying it, fish biologists love numbers. In 2001, 28,602 steelhead ascended the Rock Island Dam, the second most since 1977 and stationed a few miles below the mouth of the Wenatchee. There were lots of fish in the Upper Columbia!

Wenatchee River Steelhead....On!

However, the Wenatchee remained closed to all fishing because of the ESA listing. But the a surprising trend of returning fish was increasing with time. The 10-year average at Rock Island Dam and Rocky Reach Dam on the Columbia River was now 9,944 and 7,160, respectively. The difference between the two-Chelan PUD operated hydro projects was 2,784 and presumably, these fish were heading into the Wenatchee.
Another dam on the Wenatchee located upstream of the town of Leavenworth is the Tumwater facility. All anadromous fish, including steelhead, are counted as they pass thru the barrier ladder and some are sampled at Tumwater Dam. The 10-year average is 1550. In 2009, a modern-day record 37,796 steelhead passed thru the fish ladder at the Rock Island Dam.  Because of the relatively large returns in 2007, the Wenatchee River was reopened. An ‘emergency” opening to reduce the number of hatchery steelhead returning to the Wenatchee was official and for the first time in over a decade the river was open to fishing.
How can this be? Nobody ever heard of a kill season on bald eagles? Weren’t Upper Columbia steelhead on the same endangered list as our nation's symbol? The difference? Too many hatchery fish! An inferior management byproduct for a quick fix solution using decades of hatchery supplementation trying to repair the destruction of the true wild species.
A Wenatchee River Summer Steelhead
In order to conserve the genetic material found in naturally produced steelhead, fishery managers were required to remove hatchery fish off the spawning grounds. A steelhead fishery was opened on the Wenatchee in 2009 and 2010, which included 4-fish limits of hatchery steelhead. The latter two years required mandatory retention of hatchery fish, a regulation that didn’t sit well with many fly fishers. After years of practicing catch and release fishing, many could not resort to killing the very fish they prized so much and refused to take part in a kill fishery. Fishery managers conclude that just over 1,000 wild steelhead are needed to seed the available spawning and rearing habitat available to them in the Wenatchee.  Too many hatchery fish in the system can cause several problems: using spawning habitat that should be reserved for wild fish-spawning on top of wild fish redds spawning with wild fish which can and will dilute wild fish genetics-occupying rearing space used by wild fish and potential predation issues on ESA listed species (Spring Chinook, Steelhead, and Bull Trout). It is a fallible situation.
Hatchery fish are released to help recover stocks but too many can create a problem for fishery managers. With the help of the angling population, we can reduce the number of hatchery fish through special “emergency opening” fishery. There is nothing to sugar coat here...make no mistake, this fishery is nothing short of a complete kill fishery to reduce the amount of hatchery fish in the system. The Methow River less then a 100 miles to the north is open for the same reason. Remove the hatchery fish (identified by a missing adipose fin)…period. But the alternative isn’t pretty either, which is allowing the hatchery fish to potentially impact wild fish recovery. At least we can fish for steelhead in the Wenatchee River once again and for the time being, perhaps wild steelhead stand a chance at recovery.

 

In the fall of 2007, I found myself swinging a Green Butt Skunk on a floating line in October on the same water that many fly fishing gurus had done in previous years past. With warm, pleasant days, cool, crisp nights and the feel of fall in the air it felt right to be standing on the slick buttery rock bottom of the Wenatchee. The only difference between now and yesteryear is that instead of just harvesting fruit in the Wenatchee Valley, hatchery steelhead have also become part of the yield.  Life as we know it may not always be perfect and the situation that we find ourselves in can at times confront new challenges. When it comes to steelhead, passions ensue and ignite in many anglers. The plight of wild steelhead is constantly at risk. For many doing their work to insure the survival of wild sustainable fish populations we thank you.
The Worley Bugger Fly Company is doing their part to help reduce the number of hatchery fish in an effort to aid wild fish recovery. You can do yours too...book a trip or go on your own and harvest hatchery steelhead in the Wenatchee, Entiat, and/or Methow rivers during the special emergency opening
A Columbia River Salmon and Steelhead Endorsement is Required to fish the Klickitat.  You may purchase this endorsement when you buy your fishing license.
A Wenatchee River Steelhead
 

 

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