Book Excerpt: Saving West Coast, Alaska Steelhead

The following appears in the May issue of Alaska Sporting Journal:

Up and down the West Coast – from the top half of California, to Oregon and Washington and even the plentiful streams of Southeast Alaska – steelhead and other anadromous fish that call the region’s rivers home could be or already are in trouble. Bainbridge Island, Washington, author Dylan Tomine’s new book explains some of the perils those fish face in his home state and other coastal locales.

Tomine’s bio refers to him as “a father, writer, conservation advocate and recovering sink tip addict; not necessarily in that order.” An earlier book of his, Closer to the Ground: An Outdoor Family’s Year on the Water, in the Woods and at the Table, was a National Outdoor Book Award honorable mention. He is also a producer of a feature-length documentary, Artifishal, made by outdoors giant Patagonia about the fight to save wild salmon. But Tomine’s goal with his latest project is, in part, a plea to protect the steelhead of Alaska, California and the Pacific Northwest.

The following is excerpted from Headwaters: The Adventures, Obsession, and Evolution of a Fly Fisherman, by Dylan Tomine. Reprinted with permission by publisher Patagonia Books.


Four feet deep. Rocks the size of bowling balls. Choppy on top. The big purple marabou settles into emerald-green water, comes tight, and starts swinging through the seam. I hold my breath and make a small inside mend. The fly slows briefly, swims crosscurrent into the soft water, and suddenly stops. The rod bends. The line pulls. And the river’s surface shatters.

As my reel handle blurs, I hear the hiss of fly line shearing water and watch in awe as the biggest steelhead I’ve ever seen launches into the air and cartwheels away three, four, five times. When I come to my senses, there’s only one thing to do: start running.

Twenty minutes later, heart pounding and sweaty, I’m holding the tiring fish on a tight line as it slips downstream into a chute of fast water. Unable to follow any farther, I clamp down on the spool and my fishing buddy leaps in chest-deep, plunges his arms into the icy water, and heroically comes up with an enormous slab of chrome. At 401?2 by 23 inches, it’s quite probably the largest steelhead I will ever land, and one of five we’ve hooked this morning in the same run.

The Dean? Russia? Some other exotic destination? Or maybe a complete steelhead fantasy? Hell no. This was the suburban Skykomish River, 40 minutes from downtown Seattle, on March 14, 1997. That year, in the March–April catch-and-release season, I averaged almost two steelhead per trip. On swung flies. Fishing mostly in short three- or four-hour sessions before or after work. Unbelievable fishing, and even more unbelievable, it wasn’t all that long ago.

Today, the fabulous March and April fishery on my beloved Sky is gone. The wild steelhead population was in such a downward spiral that even the relatively low-impact catch-and-release season was completely shut down after the 2000 season. Heartbreaking? I can’t even find words for how I feel about it. I moved to Seattle in 1993 to be closer to the fabled steelhead waters of Puget Sound. A city where I could work, and a great river with big fish, less than an hour away – it seemed too good to be true. Of course, it was. I had planned on a lifetime of learning and fishing the Skykomish. Instead, I arrived just in time to witness the beginning of the end.

That’s only one river among hundreds of steelhead watersheds on the West Coast, right? What’s the big deal? There are still plenty of fish to catch in other places, aren’t there? And hey, if you aren’t a steelheader, why should you get worked up about some river closing way out in Washington? Good questions all.

I would start with the fish themselves. Perfectly evolved to thrive in both marine and freshwater environments, wild steelhead carry the ocean’s bounty inland as they migrate toward the places of their birth. And, as each watershed provides a different set of spawning and rearing conditions, it creates a unique race of steelhead. In the wild realm, there is no generic steelhead, only a range of fish with characteristics perfectly adapted to their specific rivers.

As anglers, we find ourselves seeking the small, free-rising “A-Run” steelhead of the high-desert Columbia Basin rivers; the “half-pounders” of Northern California and Southern Oregon; magnificent, heavy-bodied winter fish in the Olympic Peninsula rainforest and coastal Oregon rivers; the mind-blowingly powerful August steelhead above the falls on the Dean; the legendary autumn giants on the Skeena; the high-latitude chromers of Kamchatka and the Aleutians …

Washington’s Olympic Peninsula rivers are book author Dylan Tomine’s sacred waters. They’re home to that state’s strongest remaining steelhead runs, as well as populations of seagoing bull trout. (CAMERON KARSTEN)

These fish range from 14 inches to 30 pounds, from 2 to 9 or more years old, from heavily spotted to nearly unmarked. And yet, they share several distinctive traits: a willingness to come to the swung fly; the speed and strength normally associated with saltwater fish; an individual beauty that possesses those who fish for them; and unfortunately, a future as cloudy as a glacial river after days of warm rain.

Why should we care? If you’re a steelheader, the reasons are obvious. And if you are not, the depleted state of wild steelhead populations on the Pacific Coast serves as a powerful example of a valuable resource squandered and a lesson for anglers and fish managers everywhere. On a bigger scale, steelhead are an indicator species, the proverbial canary in the coal mine of population growth and human consumption. In other words, the health of wild steelhead is a direct reflection of the health of both our watersheds and marine environments. Steelhead can clearly survive without us – the question is, can we survive without them?

“A curious thing happens when fish stocks decline: People who aren’t aware of the old levels accept the new ones as normal. Over generations, societies adjust their expectations downward to match prevailing conditions.”

–Kennedy Warne, National Geographic magazine

Author Dylan Tomine has fished all over the West Coast and spent five years guiding in Bristol Bay. He loves the fish he’s cast flies for and wants to continue to do so. (DYLAN TOMINE)

IN OREGON, WHERE POPULATION and development have only more recently become factors, the primary problem affecting wild steelhead seems to be genetic pollution from the massive coastal hatchery program. There are certainly logging-practice issues and the resulting spawning habitat loss, as well as a long history of high recreational- harvest rates, but according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), hatcheries are the major reason 18 of the 21 distinct Oregon Coast wild steelhead stocks are now listed under the Endangered Species Act as either “depressed” or “of special concern.”

So what about the healthy runs of the far north, where wilderness rivers attract anglers from around the world to fish for larger numbers of wild steelhead? Well, the Situk River in Southeast Alaska, a small drainage famous for its incredibly productive steelhead fishery, certainly qualifies. Compared to other, more accessible rivers, recent average runs of 12,300 fish makes it a veritable bonanza for traveling anglers. However, a quick check of historical numbers shows that once again, we are fishing for crumbs. In 1952, the Situk had a typical run of between 25,000 and 30,000 wild winter steelhead. Today’s “bonanza” is really less than half of what it once was.

On the Skeena in British Columbia, beyond the intensive and unsustainable gillnet bycatch and the indifference, or worse, from [Fisheries and Oceans Canada] outlined earlier [in my book], there’s currently a vast array of potentially disastrous threats to wild steelhead circling this watershed. Despite the recent ban on North Coast open-water net pens, industrial fish farm corporations – with their proven track record of waste pollution, chemicals, and deadly sea-lice infestations, which easily spread to migrating wild fish, thereby decimating natural runs – are still fighting to place facilities near the mouth of the Skeena.

(As a side note, it’s a well-documented fact that salmon farms dramatically damage wild fish runs, but has anyone noticed what a self-fulfilling market strategy this is? As wild runs decline, the value of farmed fish will certainly rise.)

Royal Dutch Shell is pushing to exploit coalbed methane reserves in the Sacred Headwaters, while other corporations seek to extract molybdenum, copper, and other precious metals, all of which would prove disastrous for the watershed. A pipeline carrying millions of gallons of toxic petroleum products is planned to run through the avalanche- and slide- prone Skeena corridor. Rail cars loaded with Indonesian petroleum byproducts to be used as solvents rumble perilously upriver bound for the tar-sand oil fields of Alberta. And timber companies have their sights on vast tracts of forest protecting critical spawning habitat.

That such damaging, yet profitable, industries are even on the table for what may be the most valuable steelhead watershed in the world is mind-boggling. It also demonstrates the power of the almighty dollar and what people fighting to preserve this fishery are up against. Not surprisingly, very few believe government, if left to its own devices, will make any decisions here to benefit salmon or steelhead.

“In our fathers’ generation, they witnessed the complete collapse of the California steelhead fishery. In our generation, it was the famed rivers of Puget Sound. What’s next? We’re currently standing on the edge of the cliff and time is running out. If we’re going to do anything to save wild steelhead, we have to do it now.”

–Dr. Nathan Mantua, research scientist, NOAA Southwest Fisheries Science Center

Situk steelhead photo by Tony Ensalaco

THE FACT IS, STEELHEAD are under attack at every level: from federal policies favoring commercial, unsustainable fisheries, mining, and forest harvest practices to bungled state management operating under a philosophy of [maximum sustained harvest], to local municipalities’ sanctioning of development and commercialization. Suburban sprawl engulfs our river valleys. Forestland is cut to build houses and make toilet paper. Modern agriculture requires increasing amounts of water, while dam operators fight to generate more electricity – all at the expense of natural, fish-producing streamflow.

To mitigate these losses, we’ve come to rely on hatcheries, which we are now learning may contribute to wild fish declines as much as all the other factors combined. All this, and we’re only beginning to see the effects of global warming, with its changing weather patterns, shrinking glaciers, catastrophic flood events, and higher summertime stream temperatures. Is it any wonder our fish are in trouble?

To quote Bill Murray in Stripes, “And then … depression set in.” I know, the numbers are staggering. The causes, seemingly insurmountable. The outlook, bleak. But there are reasons for hope, first and foremost of which is that wild steelhead are incredibly tough, resilient fish. As the glaciers retreated thousands of years ago, steelhead spread out, adapted, and colonized a wide range of disparate environments from high-desert sage country to coastal rainforest, from winding tundra streams to broad valley rivers.

When Mount Saint Helens erupted in 1980, sending a boiling mass of superheated ash down the Toutle River, for all intents and purposes, the river as we knew it ceased to exist. To see it shortly after this catastrophic event was to witness a thin trickle of water winding through a wasteland of broken stumps and volcanic mud. And yet, within a few short years, the wild steelhead were back, recolonizing and adapting to their harsh new environment. As Dr. Nathan Mantua says, “If we just give them half a chance, the fish will respond.”

Southeast Alaska’s famed Situk River remains a strong bastion for steelhead, but as the author writes, “In 1952, the Situk had a typical run of between 25,000 and 30,000 wild winter steelhead. Today’s ‘bonanza’ is really less than half of what it once was.” (TONY ENSALACO)

So how do we give them that half a chance? Just as the threats to wild steelhead survival exist on every level, so too do the possible solutions. On a broad scale, since our governments seem to respond best to money, we need to remind the people we’ve entrusted with the management of our fish about the financial benefits of healthy runs and the resulting tourist and sportfishing dollars. We need to fight hidden subsidies and government sanctioning of resource extraction industries. We need to vote, petition, and write letters. Does it work? Absolutely. Just look at the ban on open- water salmon farms for the north coast of British Columbia. After years of hard work by a coalition of First Nations and local nonprofits, the BC government finally agreed with their citizens and implemented the new policy in 2008.

When possible, we need to provide alternatives to the status quo. If we look, there are some surprisingly simple solutions to a number of the challenges we face. For example, in places like the Columbia, Fraser, and Skeena Rivers, where commercial salmon gill-net fisheries intercept a high number of steelhead, live- capture fish traps or pound nets would allow safe release of fish from depressed stocks, while simultaneously increasing the quality (and thereby the value) of the targeted fish. Everybody wins.

We can also boycott farmed salmon from open-water net pens and explain to restaurants and markets that serve or sell it why this product is so damaging to wild salmon and steelhead. Turns out, most people have no idea about the harm it causes, and, when shown the facts, will happily stop buying or selling farmed salmon.

We should encourage – no, demand – that outdoor gear manufacturers actively give back to preserve the resources they depend upon, and support those that do with our dollars. We can eat local, organic food. Stop watering and fertilizing our lawns. Walk, pedal, or paddle whenever possible. In drought-prone regions, even not flushing when you pee helps.

The most valuable thing we can do, though, is to get directly involved. Of course, I understand most of us don’t have the time or resources to understand all the issues or wage a personal political campaign. That’s where grassroots organizations like Wild Fish Conservancy, Wild Steelhead Coalition, and Native Fish Society come into play. These groups are hard at work doing everything from political lobbying and litigation to scientific research, stream restoration, and funding steelhead-related projects. They provide the regular angler with the voice and clout of a larger organization, and distribute information to their members about issues requiring action.

As distasteful as politics and joining organizations may be to many anglers, it is, as author and steelhead aficionado Tom McGuane reminds us, “Now past the time where we can just go out and fish without worrying about the resource.” That’s pretty much what we’ve been doing, and look where it got us.

If you fish for steelhead or dream of someday fishing for them, if the numbers and issues in this story concern you, if you’d like to believe that we’ll have fishable numbers of steelhead for the rest of our lives and our children’s … the answer is simple: get involved.

For that matter, if you’re passionate about trout or stripers or bass or salmon or tarpon, I urge you to learn from what’s happened to our steelhead and get involved with the preservation of your fishery. As steelheaders know all too well, when it goes, it goes fast. ASJ

Editor’s note: Headwaters: The Adventures, Obsession, and Evolution of a Fly Fisherman, is available at shop/books. For more information on author Dylan Tomine, check out his website (