Salmon Questions from the Blogosphere.
Here you go Chris. I have, as requested, tried to answer your questions. Again, I ask anyone who reads this to think more about your own story, because our collective memories and stories shape the perceptions and attitudes we bring to the negotiating table when we haggle over the future of wild fish, hatchery fish, rivers, and fishing here in this beautiful lower-48 corner of the Pacific Northwest.
Q: Describe your introduction to fishing.
My first introduction to fishing was in the early 1950s when my Father took me along on a fishing trip to a small creek near Augusta Georgia. I didn’t fish. I think my Father did, but can’t remember how he fished. We were near a bridge. I remember seeing a fish dart across the creek. That’s all. I was hooked. Captivated. Enthralled
My first actual fishing occurred when my Father was stationed in Istanbul, Turkey, in about 1954 or thereabouts. He hired a Turkish man with a rowboat to take us fishing in the Bosporus. The Turk provided hand-line, sinker of some sort, and tied some small, feathered jig-hooks on the line.
I remember lowering my hand-line into the depths and jigging it up and down. Soon enough, I had a bite. I pulled in my line and retrieved a small fish, maybe six-inches long. I think the fish was a pale orangish-pinkish and had large translucent fins. It was so long ago. I was fascinated with this creature. I held it in my hands in the water to watch it. Being a fish, it soon squirted out of my hands and returned to the deep.
So much for catch and release fishing. I remember feeling wronged by the little fish that had not chosen to stay in my hands. The next fish I caught went promptly into the security of the bottom of the boat, as did the next dozen or so fish, all of about the same size.
I have come to believe, after raising one son and still working on raising a second, that fishing is something that people are born-to – or not. This may be a case of “gene expression” as in – the genetic tendency to go nuts for fishing either turns on or it doesn’t.
My fishing friends with children have experienced the same. Some kids just love to fish, right from the git-go. Some can take-it or leave-it. Children born to families with avid-angler fathers do not necessarily want to fish at all.
My first experience fishing in Oregon was in the early 1960s. I bought a spool of leader and a few hooks at the Neskowin Store, cut a springy limb about four feet long, tied the line to the pole, and used some bacon for bait. I caught little trout. Probably they were little cutthroat and juvenile steelhead. I didn’t know. Most of the fish went home with me.
Q: How has fishing in Oregon changed in terms of ……
More sophisticated. I was given a Shakespeare Spinning rod, a Mitchell 300 reel, some Okie Drifters, Super Duper lures, Mepps spinners, and some Woblrite spoons. I carried a gaff that I made in 8th Grade Shop Class. No hip boots, fishing vest, rain-gear, nippers, zingers, hook hones, or fancy this and that. Virtually none of the do-dads that many anglers consider essential these days.
Product marketing is a fact of American life. Marketing of the sport, of fishing as recreation is pretty weak compared to marketing fast cars or beer or even adrenaline-charged young-punk thrill sports. It didn’t seem important to “market” fishing as recreation when I was a kid. We just did it, a lot of us, because our dads fished. Today, fewer and fewer kids grow up wanting to fish. They play video games, or soccer, or watch movies or TV or hang-out in the Malls. Who is still around to take kids fishing these days?
Sure there is a generation of young-guns who are super hottie anglers even given their twenty-something ages. But there aren’t nearly enough of these lazer aweome invisionary pisticators. Our sport is dying, the Fish Agencies tell us. Suffering the death of urbanization and disconnection from nature. I think the sport is being killed by loss of public access also. I think the sport is dying because a lot of the wild runs have been beat down for one reason or another. All the hope we had for hatcheries has not borne nearly the sweet fruit we had hoped for.
Q: Hatchery influence?
I think that hatchery salmon and steelhead are currently being stocked in fewer Oregon coastal rivers, in generally smaller number, than was the case in the 1960s, ‘70s, and even the ‘80s. I think those were the days of producing tons of domesticated-stock hatchery fish and scatter-planting them around in lots of rivers.
Catchable trout were stocked in a lot of coastal and inland rivers and creeks. I remember fishing Dairy Creek near Portland when I was in high school. I would cut class and go fishing. I never asked a farmer’s permission; just made my way across a fiend, stepped into the creek, and fly fished my way upstream. I caught two- or three-dozen cutthroat every time (during early season) I fished there. How big? Probably from 5” to 10” – an occasional 12-13” fish was a prize. I remember catching a 13” cutthroat that had a red fly with a foot of leader tippet still stuck in its jaw. I know that Dairy Creek was stocked with hatchery rainbow for the season opener, but I do not believe that I ever, ever caught one. I did catch a lot of hatchery trout in the Metolius and Nestucca rivers, in the Collowash, in Fish Creek, In the Luckiamute, and in Pine Creek.
It seemed easy to find access to fishing for trout in small streams back then. Just drive out of the city, park along a river, and go fishin’. Not like that today. From the Elk, the Sixes, Neskowin, Alsea, Salmon River, Dairy Creek, Siletz and more – one can drive and drive, seeing “NO TRESPASSING” signs, trophy homes, trailer parks, or supermarkets in places where we once walked across a field to fish.
I wasn’t part of the conservation conversation in those days. I think that people took fish and fishing pretty much for granted, and expecting hatchery trout, salmon, and steelhead to always be there for us was likely part of that complacency.
Q: ODFW attitudes?
My only way to guage ODFW’s attitudes about fishing and conservation in the 1960s and 70s is by reading the reports generated during those decades. My sense is that fish were considered fish, hatchery fish were seen as the salvation of fishing, and that the angler’s world was a good place, thanks to the scientific advances in hatchery fish feed, disease treatments, and selective breeding.
Q: Fisherman’s attitudes?
Dunno. I didn’t talk to other anglers much then. For several decades, I was almost exclusively inward-focused.
Q: Fishing in Oregon?
I see the world of fishing through a different lens than I did nearly fifty – or even twenty years ago. I’m different. Combine divorce, counseling, confronting one’s demons, a new relationship, and a chance to live life differently – and you get a different perspective on life.
The world is different too. Endangered Species act? Didn’t exist back then. Salmon threatened with extinction? Preposterous. Problems with hatcheries? Unlikely, and even if there were, they were all “fixable” with the proper application of elbow-grease and scientific research.
Fishing is definitely different than when I cut that branch and stuck a gob of bacon on a hook to see what Neskowin Creek would give up to me.
I’ve seen wild steelhead and spring Chinook assassinated by dams on the South Santiam. Same deal on the Deschutes, when Pelton Dam cut-off the runs of summer steelhead, bull trout, and spring Chinook. I saw Lost Creek Dam put a dagger in the belly of Rogue spring Chinook. Sorry, this is a different rant, couldn’t help myself. Just had to put it out there. I have also seen wild trout blossom on the Lower Deschutes and in the Metolius. I have seen wonderful runs of wild king salmon to all of our Oregon coastal rivers twice in my lifetime – in the late 1980s and early 2000s.
I went fishing for spring Chinook in the Columbia last week. Caught one. We’ve let our wild spring Chinook languish so long, decline so deeply, that I wouldn’t have been able to fish at all were it not for the hatchery fish. Truth is, I was really happy to go fishing with a friend, and to know salmon were there, even though most of them were hatchery fish.
Fishing is different, just as I am, these days.
Chris, you didn’t ask if I had real fishing mentors. The answer is – no – I was pretty much on my own. No one to teach me about restraint. No one teach me about enjoying the whole experience rather than focusing 100% of my energy and skill on what I could catch, kill, and take home. Fishing was a blessing and a curse to me for many years. The curse was being too deeply invested in the catch, the kill, the full creel, full tag, full freezer, and a sense-of-self fueled by the number and size of fish I caught. That emotional investment in the catch, the kill spoiled much of what could have been a blessing.
A mentor, a friend wiser than me, might have been able to save me from myself sooner.
Q: How did you come to make science and conservation part of your life?
Accident? Destiny? Dunno. I was offered full time work as a Timber Feller in Washington. I was recruited for a career track as a Naval Officer. I was offered a job as head guide-outfitter by a highly respected fly fishing business. Some guy tried to convince me to leave ODFW and make a million bucks selling AMWAY. My life could have gone many different directions.
Dedicating myself to catching fifty shiner perch after school in San Francisco Bay was good practice for Ichthyology class at Oregon State. Figuring out how to untangle a three-hour backlash somehow helped me get a passing grade in Organic Chemistry. Tying flies and perfecting my egg-borax technique reflected the same patience and work-ethic required to cut a big tree, secure a Destroyer’s nuclear weapons, and write about the life history of salmon.
I like my fishing attitude now. It is funny to think about how many fish I used to catch, and how little soul-nourishment all that catching gave me. These days I receive soul-nourishment every day I spend on the water with fly rod in hand. Sure I like to catch fish. Sure I try to catch fish. But I fiddle around trying to catch fish with gear that I know makes me less likely to catch and actual steelhead or salmon. I go fishing when the water is too high, too low, before the run comes in and after the run is over. I dream about how a fly will swim in the water. I imagine the next tug. I work to improve my casting. I write about the silly things that go on in my head when I am fishing or in the café after a day on the water.
I try to remind people that there is much more to fishing than the catching part. I encourage people who love fishing to quit making faces at each other over hatchery fish or their gear so that they can do a better job of working together to save our rivers and wild fish.
For most of my life, I studied fish, I wrote reports, and I made nice polite presentations. The one time I shot-off about hatcheries being a problem, about excessive harvest rates, or allowing the destruction of the salmon’s rivers, I got put in the freezer for a year. I learned that being scientifically or factually correct is not sufficient, alone, to influence management policy.
Last year a low run of Chinook initiated a precautionary move to close the Chinook fishery on the Nehalem River, for the first time in anyone’s memory. What a shock. We had all come to take wild coastal Chinook for granted. There were questions about whether too many fish were being caught in the ocean. There were assertions that predators were eating too many salmon. There were debates over the data ODFW used to measure catch and escapement. But few asked if anything was “wrong” in the Nehalem watershed or in the estuary. The most powerful voices heard by the fish agency seemed to be demanding that ODFW provide hatchery Chinook for people to catch.
This made me sad, really sad. The Nehalem supports a run of wild Chinook that has been on the increase, generally, since the 1950s. These wild fish supported a thriving recreational fishery that drew anglers from Portland, around Oregon, and all over the world.
First sign of trouble, what did people ask for? Better land-use practices? Nope. Better monitoring? Nope. Predator management? Yeah, but upon realizing that the US Government is the authority on harbor seals, cormorants and such, the issue was quickly abandoned. (After all, why blame the critters that are just trying to find a meal when most of their prey base is scarce these days?) Lower harvest rates in the ocean fisheries? Yeah, that would be a good idea. However, this seemed also beyond the local angler’s or even Oregon’s control, so those discussions trailed-off quickly. Special regulations? No bait? No treble hooks? No fishing above tidewater? No fishing on the Nehalem river bar?
When the loud voices subsided, ODFW remembered mostly that a lot of “constituents” demanded hatchery fish in response to a declining wild salmon run. How interesting, that hatchery fish would be the first and foremost solution demanded by those most visible anglers. Not better watershed protections. Not gaining a better understanding of the factors limiting the species.
I have come to believe that science will only have a little to do with how people treat the land, the water, and the fish. I think that the average angler knows far too little about the fish they try so diligently to catch. I think hatcheries are here to stay, and I am just fine with that. I do think it is possible to be pro hatchery fish and pro wild fish at the same time. I do think the future of fish and fishing depends on anglers making some sort of peace in their community, and figuring out how to most effectively shape the future.
I’m fine with some folks fighting to save every wild fish everywhere. I am fine with some folks who might believe that wild fish are a myth and in any case we sure don’t need any of ‘em because hatcheries are the only future we can count on.
I am fine with these two polar opposites because I believe they are both dangerously wrong. I have faith that savvy anglers in the middle, pragmatic, thoughtful, creative, passionate anglers – will get together and get it right. Not that I know what “right” is, or that there is only one version of “right.”
A new era is dawning. An era of opportunity. Time to get on with shaping a future where fishing will thrive. A future with strong wild salmon, steelhead, and trout stocks. A future with hatchery fish that provide quality fishing for quality fish.
Q: What is the biggest misconception by the everyday angler about hatcheries?
There are two terrible mistakes anglers make regarding their beliefs about hatchery fish. One mistake is believing that hatcheries aren’t a problem for wild fish. The other is that hatchery fish, all by their lonesome, are always a poison pill to wild fish.
Both ideas are wrong, terribly wrong.
I feel a sense of urgency. I know I have only a little time here to ensure that wild salmon will be a real part of my son’s lives, and of their children’s lives too. This is about more than salmon. It’s about the Oregon people who follow us will work in, live in, play in, vacation in, and maybe, someday, fish in. Our wild rivers are slipping away, bit by bit. Our wild salmon are no more secure than the banks of the rivers where the trees are being cut, where trophy homes are replacing single-wide trailer homes, where the golf courses are being engineered.
Hope that helps, Chris.
Shortly, I will answer Chris’s blogosphere question about what I would do if I was the Hatchery God.