Outdoors Report: And That’s a Wrap, or, Otherwise I’d Just be a Trout

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Bluebird skies birth brown head and wide side widget ducks. At first winging by, then flutter brakes engage with flailing feathers and feet across the slackwater ripple top. Just a brief pause to bob.

Where creekside shrubs catch floodwater muff in the crotches of crook knee branches. Where mighty mayflies float beside skunk cabbage bogs, but out in the middle only the untouchable steelhead splashes.

That’s where I found myself in the moments leading up to writing this farewell column. It seemed appropriate to gather my thoughts along the silted banks of a river that has provided so much food for thought and other salmon-cannon fodder during my time at The Chronicle.

For those of you who have read this far, beyond the whimsy and sopping wet verse, I want to continue by saying thank you. Thank you for continuing to read through the years and all the accompanying barrels of ink and reams of paper. Whether you came for the ridiculous tall-tales or the unconfirmed river rumors, the up-to-date fishing regulations or the roadkill salvage hotline number, your continued support for the column helped to keep an outsider like me viable for several more years than even a fibbing fisherman floating on Rainiers would be likely to believe.

I am grateful for the few but sincere letters of support I received over the years and unreasonable compliments they contained. Those comments had a way of finding me on my darkest days and were more illuminating than their authors could ever know. Even the dedicated band of critics out there who would hound me for my every error provided some solace in the sense that at least I knew somebody was out there reading what I wrote.

The ability to do just that, to write “you are reading what I wrote,” and have it come true is a privilege and I appreciate you all for forgiving my many indulgences. 

Likewise, I am forever indebted to the friendly and knowledgeable folks around the area who were always quick to point me in the right direction or help to clarify particular points of local history. That includes, but is by no means limited to, details on the best hiking trails, where the bass bite was hot, the wildest route down a whitewater river and where to get the best gas station pizza (see: Mossyrock via Highway 12). After all, without gracious locals to impart the institutional knowledge of the land, an outdoors scribe isn’t worth much more than the spare change and hay duff in his pockets.

When I first began cobbling together these outdoors columns for The Chronicle in 2013, I had precious few qualifications for the job other than a beard and a willingness to write. As it turns out, the the diversely rugged lands of Lewis County and its neighboring attractions proved to be an ideal setting for on-the-job seasoning. Like years spent in the saltwater sea for a steelhead, the culture and terrain of The Chronicle coverage area combine to form an essential brine that causes fundamental and fortifying changes. 

When I first began sending in guest columns for my hometown newspaper while I was still in high school, I never imagined being able to come back one day as the sports editor of the very department I’d grown up reading and snipping stories out of as an ink and grass stained towhead. I only knew that I needed to swim downstream as quickly as possible. Now, because eventually all things merge into one and a river runs through it, I am poised to make a great leap of faith like a fish over the falls in order to return to the Lower Columbia region with The Daily news where my story began.

I’m well aware of what happens to steelhead when they return home and none of the options are particularly pleasant — you either wash up on the river banks eyes a bulging, or you get ripped out of the river on a rusty hook before you make it all the way. Heck, you might even get gobbled up by a barking sea lion. But in any case, I’ve got faith that it’s the journey itself that is the point entirely. Otherwise, I’d just be a trout.

As always, thank you for reading.

FISHIN’

Last week, the WDFW released the projections for returning spring Chinook, and the news is not encouraging. With low numbers of kings expected to make their way back to the Columbia River system, fishery managers in Oregon and Washington are already making moves to limit sport openings for salmon.

The official preseason projection for springers that will be headed upriver of Bonneville Dam is 81,700 fish, which represents a 12 percent increase from last year’s dismal return. However, those modest improvements would still put the run at only 43 percent of its 10-year average and the second lowest return since 1999. The record low return was 12,000 spring Chinook in 1995.

The dearth of spring kings is expected to hit lower Columbia River tributaries as well, particularly the Cowlitz and Lewis rivers. Hatcheries on those rivers are projected to fall short of their broodstock objectives by up to 16 percent this year. Despite closures on the Lewis and Cowlitz rivers that will begin on March 1, the WDFW is trying to put a positive spin on the piscatorial outlook while casting blame once again on poor ocean conditions.

"There should still be some good fishing opportunities in the Columbia River Basin this spring, but this run so far is looking similar to 2019," said Ryan Lothrop, Columbia River policy coordinator for WDFW, in a press release. "We’ll be closely monitoring returns to make sure we can meet Endangered Species Act requirements and support future runs."

Several rule changes were announced the same day as the spring king return projections. Anglers on the lower Columbia from Warrior Rock to Bonneville will be able to fish seven days a week through the end of March (barring any emergency closures). Then, in April, salmon fishing will be limited to Thursday, Friday and Saturday each week. The daily limit will be two adult hatchery steelhead or salmon. 

The total expected harvest of spring Chinook below Bonneville is 2,500 fish with just 340 springers slated for harvest above the dam. Additionally, the water below Warrior Rock will be closed beginning March 1 in order to protect incoming springers destined for the Lewis and Cowlitz rivers.

"Though we were hoping for some relief in 2019, it looks like warm ocean waters are once again likely to impact this fishery," Lothrop added. "Conservative management is critical when ocean conditions are having a detrimental impact to Chinook survival like they have in recent years."

Those conservation measures will reach the Cowlitz and Lewis rivers directly with closures beginning March 1. The shutdown on the Cowlitz will include the Cispus River and Lake Scanewa and the Lewis River will also be closed to all salmon fishing. Additionally, anglers on the Kalama River will be limited to just one adult Chinook salmon per day. However, the Kalama will remain open for steelhead with a daily limit of three fish.

Last week on the lower Columbia River, limited creel checking by the WDFW revealed even less return with 11 bank anglers near Woodland registering no catch and another angler on a boat turning up skunked as well.

A one-day smelt dip opening on the Cowlitz River this week was only slightly more rewarding for the thousands of people who lined the shores from Castle Rock to Longview. 

“It didn’t take long for everyone to figure out that there weren’t any fish around at all,” said Trevor Barker, a scientific tech for WDFW who was surveying dippers on Camelot beach on Wednesday morning. 

Barker said he surveyed about 100 dippers on Wednesday and counted only four smelt in total.

According to stats provided by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife a five-hour smelt dip with nearly 4,300 individual “trips” on Valentine’s Day brought in an estimated haul of almost 35,000 pounds, or about 400,000 fish. On Wednesday, the netting effort dropped to 1,848 trips with an estimated haul of only 45 pounds.

Laura Heironimus, the sturgeon, smelt and lamprey unit lead for WDFW, advised that gauging actual results on the river effort can be a bit misleading at times. She noted that while thousands of people turned out to the Cowlitz to see what was shaking, only a fraction of those people actually put their nets to work.

"You have to actually put a net in the water for it to count as effort," Heironimus explained.

During his dragnet shift along the shore, Barker excitedly told a story he’d heard through the grapevine. That tale involved a man without waders who walked out to the middle of the river near Gearhart Gardens early in the morning and netted three pounds of smelt. Barker said that effort made the fabled dipper the unofficial, and unrivaled, netting champion of the day.

“He was one tough guy. That’s all anyone will talk about on my phone,” said Barker.

Some dippers argued that the water was too low and too clear after a relative dry spell and funneled all the fish into the deep center channel of the river.

One duo of anglers from Olympia tried to test that theory out by casting flies into the middle of the river in an attempt to reel in some of the slippery smelt.

“I know it sounds crazy but we’re trying to catch smelt,” said Hunter Bowers as he worked his fly flipping technique with sea lions breeching nearby. “You just can’t get far enough out there with a net.”

Bowers swore he’d had success using the technique before on other rivers, but he and his understudy, Tristen Bowers, appeared to have no more luck than the common dippers on Wednesday.

Bob McCormick, of Adna, offered another theory as more sea lions bobbed upstream and yet another empty bucket went walking away from the waterline.

“They’re allergic to people,” reasoned McCormick.

Several boats could be seen plying the water north of the Al Helenberg Boat Launch on Wednesday as well. According to the WDFW statistics, bait-slinging anglers upstream have had significantly better luck than the fly tossers and net paddlers downriver. Last week, the WDFW checked 26 bank rods between the freeway and the Barrier Dam and counted one keeper steelhead with two more steelies reportedly released. Another 179 rods on 55 boats kept 70 steelhead while releasing another 18.

At the Cowlitz salmon hatchery last week, crews retrieved 24 winter-run steelhead. Fish handlers redistributed one-winter run steelhead into the Tilton River at Gust Backstrom Park in Morton and dropped three more into Lake Scanewa in Randle. This week’s river report from Tacoma Power estimated flow below Mayfield Dam at 14,300 cubic feet per second with visibility of three feet and a water temperature eof 42.6 degrees.

While the Cowlitz is set to shut down to salmon fishing on Sunday, the Chehalis has already been shuttered for a fortnight. That closure to protect wild steelhead extends the length of the Chehalis River and to all of its tributaries, including but not limited to Elk, Johns, Hoquiam, Newaukum, Satsop, Skookumchuck, Wishkah and Wynoochee rivers.

Anglers looking for a simpler set of rules might want to try area lakes and ponds thanks to some unique planting efforts in the area. 

Kress Lake in Cowlitz County was planted with one 10-pound steelhead on Feb. 21 and that lunker joined four other 10-pound steelies that were dropped into Kress between Feb. 7-10. Good luck finding them!

Failor Lake in Grays Harbor County was planted with 126 10-pound steelhead on Feb. 19.

Battle Ground Lake in Clark County received 1,700 fingerling rainbow trout on Feb. 18, and Klineline Pond was planted with 2,300 fingerling rainbows that same day.

In Thurston County, 70 rainbow trout weighing 5 pounds each were planted in Longs Pond on Feb. 6 and 20 more rainbows of the same size were dropped in Munn Lake the same day.

CLAMMIN’

Succulent bivalve enthusiasts won’t have to wait long for another opportunity to go clam hunting. On Thursday afternoon, the WDFW confirmed that marine toxin testing results came back clear and the next round of digs will begin next week.

The next set of razor clam digs proposed by the WDFW, if approved, would take place on the following dates, beaches, and tides:

  • March 6, Friday, 4:11 p.m., -0.2 feet; Long Beach, Twin Harbors, Mocrocks

  • March 7, Saturday, 4:59 p.m., -0.7 feet; Long Beach, Twin Harbors, Copalis

  • March 8, Sunday, 6:43 p.m., -1.0 feet; Long Beach, Twin Harbors, Mocrocks

  • March 9, Monday, 7:25 p.m., -1.0 feet; Long Beach, Twin Harbors, Copalis

  • March 10, Tuesday, 8:06 p.m., -0.8 feet; Long Beach, Twin Harbors, Mocrocks

  • March 11, Wednesday, 8:46 p.m., -0.2 feet; Long Beach, Twin Harbors, Copalis

"With abundant clams and smaller crowds, this time of year is great for digging

enthusiasts," said Dan Ayres, WDFW coastal shellfish manager, in a press release. "The sun is setting later as spring approaches and diggers who head out early often fill their bags

before dark."

With night digs still in effect it’s imperative for diggers to prepare for the elements and keep safety in mind even when they’ve got a big clam on the line.

"It always pays to be prepared for a variety of conditions when visiting our ocean beaches," noted Ayres. "Warm layers, waterproof or moisture-wicking clothing and a good light source are supplies that are useful

year-round."

State law allows diggers to harvest up to 15 razor clams per day, but no high-grading is allowed. All diggers ages 15 and older are required to have a fishing license.

HUNTIN’

The phrase of the day in the world of hunting is “too late.” That’s because if you’re just thinking about it today, odds are the opportunity has already passed you by.

A comment period on proposed changes to hunting seasons and regulations closed on Feb. 26. Applications for spring black bear hunts closed on Feb. 28. And hunts for ungulates and birds have all been over for weeks, if not months, at this point.

However, hunts for cougars will remain open through April 30 in all areas where harvest limits have not been reached. Some areas don’t have any limits at all. Meanwhile, small game hunts for bobcats, foxes, raccoons, cottontail rabbits and snowshoe hares will all remain open March 15. Similarly, trapping season for beavers, badgers, weasels, martens, minks, muskrats and river otters will continue through the end of March, and of course, coyote hunting season is like a song that never ends.

Additionally, roadkill salvage is legal in Washington with the use of an emergency permit provided by the WDFW. However, deer are not legal for salvage in Clark, Cowlitz or Wahkiakum counties in order to protect endangered populations of Columbian white-tailed deer. Permits are available online and must be obtained within 24-hours of any deer or elk salvage. Permit applications, and additional roadkill salvage regulations, can now be found online at wdfw.wa.gov/licenses/roadkill-salvage.

PRESERVIN’

The WDFW is soliciting input from the public regarding the protected status of 19 wildlife species found, ofttimes sporadically, around the state. The information gathering effort is a part of a periodic review of native wildlife populations.

This year the WDFW is reviewing the status of steller sea lions, orcast, lynx, western gray squirrels, woodland caribou, Columbian white-tailed deer, brown pelicans, white pelicans, bald eagles, peregrine falcons, greater sage-grouse, sandhill cranes, snowy plovers, marbled murrelets, northern spotted owls, streaked horned larks, Oregon vesper sparrows, western pond turtles, and Taylor’s checkerspot butterflies. 

"We are interested in obtaining information from the public, including non-governmental organizations, universities, private researchers and naturalists, to supplement current data,” said Hannah Anderson, listing and recovery section manager for WDFW’s Wildlife Diversity Division, in a press release.

"We’re fortunate to have people in Washington who care deeply and engage on these issues,” Anderson added. “Such groups and individuals likely have valuable data, such as annual population counts or privately developed habitat management plans.”

In particular, the WDFW is seeking information on species demographics, habitat conditions, threats and trends, effective conservation measures, and any new data collected since the last status review on each species. A press release from the WDFW insisted that information from the public is essential to the process.

“We greatly value this information and all the people who work with us to conserve and protect species,” Anderson said.

Information may be submitted by email to TandEpubliccom@dfw.wa.gov, or by mail to Hannah Anderson, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, P.O. Box 43141, Olympia, WA 98504-3141.

SHREDDIN’

With skunk cabbage sprouting in the lowlands it’s certain that spring is growing near but up in the high country winter still has a stronghold on the slopes.

At White Pass Ski Area late this week early morning temperatures were hovering around 25 degrees with no new snow to report. That doesn’t mean there’s no snow to enjoy, however, as the snowpack near the summit was reported at 131 inches with around 78 inches reported near the base.

Even more encouraging is the fact that a new round of snow is expected to reach them there hills beginning Friday evening and continuing through the weekend.

On Saturday and Sunday White Pass will host it’s 36th annual Winter Carnival. That event will include the Ski and Ride for a Cure fundraiser event.

The ski area is currently operating daily from 8:45 a.m. until 4 p.m.

— And that’s a wrap.

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