For the first time in 54 years, Barbara Brown won’t be fishing for summer-run steelhead on the Grande Ronde River in southwest Washington State.
Her excuse? Cancer.
Ever the overachiever, Barb, a self-described “nobody’s-business-year-old retired pain in the ass,” was diagnosed with not one but two different types of lung cancer in July of this year. Barb has been my adopted steelhead grandma for the last four years, and when she told me, my heart dropped out of my chest. She was supposed to call me to start organizing our annual fall trip to the Grande Ronde. We were going to talk about all the lard-heavy and alcohol-soaked meals she was planning to cook out of her trailer. She needed to remind me to bring the stakes for my tent so we didn’t have a repeat of last year…or the year before, or the year before that. Instead, she detailed her chemotherapy and radiation schedule for the next few months. Barb wasn’t expecting to make it to the Ronde this season because she’d be hooked up to a chemo drip, getting poked and prodded by “a bunch of damn vampires.”
Our motley crew—two of my fishing mentors, a few members of Barb’s family, her 92-year-old friend Gene, and my good friend Amanda—spends several weeks on the Grande Ronde every October. The river is born in northeast Oregon and eventually feeds into the Snake, a sizable tributary of the Columbia River in the Pacific Northwest. With a legendary run of summer steelhead and impossibly dazzling scenery, the Ronde is a magnet for steelhead anglers all across the country.
The truth is, when Barb told me she wasn’t going to make the trip this year, I had already half-decided that I wasn’t going to either. According to a news release from the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, the preseason forecast for summer steelhead traveling up the Columbia River was 89,200 adult fish, an aggregate of both natural-origin and hatchery steelhead stocks. As of September 14, 55,272 fish had made it over Bonneville Dam—the first in a series of eight dams that adult steelhead must pass through to reach the Grande Ronde River. This is a record low—just 32 percent of the ten-year average for that date. As I write this at the beginning of October (and the likely end of this season’s run), less than three quarters of the 89,200 fish forecast to return to the Columbia and its tributaries this year have actually been accounted for.
This means that the total number of adult summer steelhead that have come back thus far this year is less than 33 percent of the ten-year average from 2011 to 2020 and roughly 21 percent of the 20-year average from 2001 to 2020. Those are epically atrocious numbers that demonstrate a continued downward trend over the last several decades. The worst part of all of this is that these fish have been listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act since 1997. It’s a horrendous year for an already diminished population.
The painful irony of Barb’s battling cancer while Columbia River steelhead are returning to their natal waters in record low numbers landed like Barb’s smack to the back of the head—blunt and persuasive. As an angler, I could not, in good conscience, carry on business as usual.
Amid pressure from conservation groups and like-minded anglers, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife instituted emergency closures to steelhead fishing on the lower Columbia River and portions of several tributaries, including the Deschutes, John Day, Umatilla, and Walla Walla Rivers. In the news release announcing the additional closures, ODFW remarked, “Passage counts of summer steelhead at Bonneville Dam from July 1 through Aug. 26 are the lowest since counts began in 1938.”
ODFW’s decision came in late August and steelhead anglers in Washington and Idaho were left waiting to hear how their states’ respective fish-and-wildlife agencies would handle the situation. Some of those anglers hoped for closures to protect the stock; others crossed their fingers for the chance to fish.
In early September, the Idaho Department of Fish and Game (IDFG) lowered its bag limit of hatchery steelhead, or artificially propagated fish intended to mitigate losses in wild steelhead populations, from three to one fish per day on portions of the Snake, Clearwater, Salmon, and Little Salmon Rivers. A day later, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife announced closures to part of the lower Snake, the Tucannon, the Walla Walla, and the Touchet Rivers. As in Idaho, the bag limit for the waterways that would remain open—including the Grande Ronde—was reduced from three to one hatchery steelhead per day.
Those anglers hoping for comprehensive emergency closures to protect what was left of the evidently diminutive run of summer steelhead—myself included—were gutted. It still didn’t feel like enough.
In speaking to The Lewiston Tribune in August, Joe DuPont, regional fisheries manager for the IDFG, lamented, “One could argue, at least for this date, this is the worst steelhead run past the Bonneville area ever.” Later, in a September update from IDFG, Dupont went on to say, “Despite the down return of steelhead that are destined for the Snake and Salmon rivers, it looks like this fall will provide a good diversity of fishing opportunities for steelhead, fall Chinook Salmon, and Coho Salmon. Good luck!”
Good luck? That one stung. It’s not me that needs luck.
Allowing anglers to target steelhead, even without the intention of harvest, can have adverse effects on the health of individual fish and on a population. A 2018 study of catch-and-release impacts on wild steelhead in British Columbia’s Bulkley River examined the increased immediate stress response of summer steelhead when subjected to air exposure, improper landing techniques, and high water temperatures—all of which can occur in catch-and-release fisheries. This stress response takes the form of elevated cortisol levels, which are well documented to be detrimental to a fish’s immune system if not metabolized, and which are also suspected to threaten reproductive success. The debate around catch-and-release practices runs deep. There remain many unknowns, and the need for more specific Columbia River steelhead studies is undeniable. However, it is widely known and accepted that no angling, including catch-and-release, ever presents zero risk of fish mortality. In fact, most studies estimate the direct lethal effects of that manner of fishing on steelhead to be around 10 percent. This threat, combined with the paltry numbers of fish returning to the Columbia and Snake river basins this year, is enough to keep me from targeting these fish.
Compounding the problem is the fact that it’s not just the steelhead populations that are at stake: steelhead fishing in the region is an industry, and guides, outfitters, and others rely on it as a source of income. In fall of 2019, IDFG closed steelhead angling in the Clearwater River and part of the Snake River due to low numbers of fish. That area of Idaho is estimated to make about $8.6 million per month in sales related to salmon and steelhead fishing. In addition to economic repercussions, fishing closures can threaten the connections people have to these rivers, which are necessary to fortify a strong army of steelhead advocates. The fear is that if anglers can’t connect to these fish in the way they have for years, why would they continue to care about them?
Many factors have led to the catastrophe playing out on the river this year. Water is low, and the temperature is reaching bathwater levels in the Snake and Columbia Rivers, thanks to a series of dams. (On August 15, the temperature of the Columbia River at Bonneville Dam was 74.2 degrees.) Annual snowpack continues to decrease, and ocean conditions that support marine survival continue to degrade. Basin-wide fishing closures aren’t going to miraculously improve steelhead populations anywhere. And refraining from targeting summer steelhead this season can’t alone solve this multifaceted problem. But it is one small choice within an angler’s power that does alleviate some of the pressure. At a time when my voice doesn’t seem loud enough, and my surrounding resource agencies don’t seem willing to step up, I feel obligated to take every measure I possibly can that falls within my immediate control.
The golden halos that crown the Grande Ronde River Canyon’s hills just before the sun sets are embedded in the deepest part of my being. Something so spectacular cannot simply evaporate. Unlike any of my bank-account passwords, the feeling of a steelhead grabbing my swung fly and immediately launching itself airborne cannot and will never be forgotten. Abstaining from fishing this year’s run will not jeopardize my connection to these fish and the places they live.
I can float some of these rivers without a rod in hand. I’ve taken a liking to river snorkeling as a different way to encounter wild steelhead. Barb and I have made plans to fish the Ronde for bass in the spring when she’s feeling better. I will still purposefully bring my business to outfitters and rural towns. And I have every intention of getting blind whiskey drunk around a campfire with my friends (burn-ban permitting). It’s all just going to look different, but if I were afraid of changing things up in an effort to protect the things I love, then I’d be nothing but another brick in the wall.
I am finished letting my ego write checks that wild steelhead can’t cash. The due date for critical and extraordinary action has passed. Demanding less of this population isn’t enough, but it’s a good place to start. Anglers, guides, and industry leaders must acknowledge both their impact on and their responsibility to these fish. Resource agencies need to be leaders in restoring these populations, not to serve as accomplices in the hunt for the last wild steelhead. Decision-makers have to untangle themselves from extractive industries. And we need smarter infrastructure to replace dams and restore habitable conditions to these rivers (looking at you, lower Snake River dams). There is a lot of work to do, but it has to start somewhere. Luckily, Barb isn’t one for idling and neither am I. So here’s to kicking cancer’s ass and taking care of our beloved Columbia River summer steelhead.
Bridget Moran is a conservation associate with American Rivers and works in the Puget Sound and Columbia River basins. A lifelong Puget Sound angler, she’s lived in Bellingham, Washington, for the last decade, and her inability to say no has earned her the presidency at North Sound Trout Unlimited.