A rare breed, the anglers who choose to pursue wild steelhead single-mindedly have just what it takes to stamp out threats to public access, especially when some of the best waters are on the line
I consider myself lucky to live in Washington State. As an avid steelhead angler, I’m at the epicenter of some of the best steelhead fishing in the Lower 48 (sorry, Oregon and California.) We enjoy just 13 million acres of national public lands—a paltry amount when compared to other Western states. But with the high deserts of the east and the coastal rainforests of the west side, the splendor of the places Washingtonians have to pursue this iconic game fish more than makes up for what the state lacks in overall acreage of public lands.
Unfortunately, wild steelhead are in serious decline—12 of the 15 populations on the West Coast are listed as threatened or endangered species, and the root cause of their collapse is heavily debated among anglers and fisheries managers. I’ve witnessed hours-long heated discussions about the impact of single-barbless and treble hooks on species survival. In fact, we get so caught up in whether to worry about overharvest, dams, hatcheries, or ocean conditions, that we’re failing to fight for the public lands that provide us with our best days on the water.
When some lawmakers talk about disposing of public lands, they’re talking about trading off your access to places like the mountainous headwaters of Washington’s Methow River in the Okanogan National Forest, which is considered one of the last strongholds for Columbia Basin summer-run fish, or some of the finest runs of summer steelhead in Oregon’s North Umpqua River. They’re toying with your ability to get to Idaho’s iconic Snake River via BLM land or hold a wild steelhead in Alaska’s vast and relatively untouched Tongass National Forest. Even the access provided by Washington’s Olympic National Forest to the river corridors of the Sol Duc and Queets, where dime-bright winter-run fish swim to their natal waters from November through May, could be closed off forever.
You get the point. In state or private hands, the needs of steelhead or anglers will not be a priority on these lands—nor will the interests of hunters, hikers, bikers, or American families. The habitat could suffer under a different management model or inevitable lack of funding for upkeep, creating more trouble for the species that are already in a precarious situation.
Steelheaders are a passionate bunch—you’d have to be to brave the winter conditions we do without blinking an eye. That’s why we could truly be a force in the fight for our public lands. We don’t need to abandon our debate over the best approach for restoring steelhead populations, but we can’t afford to have the rug pulled out from under us in the meantime. As sportsmen, and as steelheaders, the simplest thing we can do to help ensure the future of the species and our fishing opportunities is to speak up for habitat AND our access to America’s public lands. It isn’t an either-or proposition.