Hoh River study: Does fishing from a boat affect wild steelhead catch?

Photo by Joe Princen of anglers fishing on the Hoh River. State fishery managers are studying the impacts on wild steelhead of fishing from a floating device versus from shore.

In late 2020, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) fishery managers prohibited fishing from a floating device in all coastal rivers and tributaries to reduce angler impacts on wild steelhead.

The intent was to increase protections for coastal steelhead populations. Similar regulations have long been used in portions of prominent Oregon and British Columbia rivers, including the Deschutes and Babine, as well as sections of other Washington rivers.

Fishing from a boat or raft offers anglers access to much more water, including areas they can’t easily reach from the bank, allowing them to fish more effectively and hook more steelhead.

Each year since 2020, WDFW has lifted some of these restrictions on certain waters where the number of wild steelhead expected to return allows for increased catch. For example, portions of the Sol Duc and Bogachiel rivers have reopened for fishing from a floating device.

Now, for the first time in over three years, anglers are allowed to fish from a floating device on the lower and middle sections of the Hoh River, located in the northern Olympic Peninsula. The upper section of the Hoh has been closed to fishing from a floating device since 2016.

The change is in effect Sunday through Tuesday from the Morgan’s Crossing boat launch downstream to the Washington State Department of Natural Resources Hoh Oxbow Campground boat launch, and Wednesday through Saturday from the Hoh Oxbow boat launch downstream to the Olympic National Park boundary near the mouth.

WDFW graphics showing the sections of the Hoh River and days of the week anglers may fish from a floating device.

The special rules are part of a one-season study to determine the impacts of fishing from a floating device on wild steelhead to better inform future rulemaking and other conservation actions.

“Fish managers, the scientific community, and the public have all shown an interest in the savings associated with no fishing from a boat,” said WDFW Coastal Region Fish Program Manager James Losee. “People want to know if this regulation is effective at reducing the number of steelhead caught.”

The state’s 2023–24 coastal steelhead fishing season opened Dec. 1 and is scheduled to run through March 31.

Gear restrictions are in place to reduce catch mortality, and WDFW Enforcement officers have been patrolling the river to ensure anglers are abiding by the rules. See our news release and fishing regulations for details.

Washington anglers are allowed to harvest hatchery steelhead; however, wild steelhead must be kept partially in the water at all times and released. Still, not all wild steelhead that are caught survive.

“A 10% release mortality is the standard applied in most steelhead fisheries,” Losee said.

Past information suggests prohibiting fishing from a floating device may reduce total steelhead catch by more than 50%. This study will refine that estimate so that managers are better equipped to maximize boat fishing opportunity while protecting wild steelhead.

Guide Joey Princen rows on the Hoh River. Photo courtesy of Joe Princen.

“Is a 50% savings from no fishing from a boat what we are seeing in the current Hoh River steelhead fishery?” said Jennifer Whitney, a WDFW Coastal Region fish biologist. “The better the estimate we have for impacts to wild steelhead from the Hoh fishery, the better we can maximize fishing opportunity while protecting wild steelhead. We need the answer to this question and are in a good position to get it.”

Data for the study will come primarily from creel surveys, which include angler interviews and estimates of the number of anglers on the water. Information from test fishing and catch record cards will also be used in the study. For the latest in-season creel survey data, see WDFW’s website.

Losee said data collected during this study includes:

· Species caught

· Number of fish caught

· Fish life stage and mark status

· Section of the Hoh River fished

· Duration of fishing trip

· Method used (i.e., fishing from a floating device vs. from shore)

· Gear type

WDFW staff are collecting the data at boat launches and water access sites along the river and evaluating it. Creel results will be released shortly after the season, with an in-depth statistical analysis of the study expected later. WDFW staff — including the Olympic Peninsula, science division, and freshwater monitoring teams — plan to report findings in a peer-reviewed paper.

Staff will compare results from this study with results from creel surveys in other river systems, such as the Sol Duc River and Willapa Bay. They may also be able to apply what they learn from the Hoh River to other systems, while considering differences in river characteristics, bank and boat access, river size and “wadeability,” and other factors.

“We’re going to learn how fishing effort shifts within a river, and how the shift in catch happens,” Losee said.

Leah Kiyohara holds a steelhead in the water. Photo by Joe Princen.

Whitney said the study will account for variability in angler effort and environmental factors. For example, fishery managers expect more anglers will focus on waters where they are allowed to fish from a floating device, and more people will fish when conditions are good.

WDFW chose the Hoh for the study because the Department has more creel survey data from this river compared to other coastal rivers, and because the sections included in the study have already been established for data collection. Forecasts, or the predicted number of adult steelhead returning in future years, were also high enough to increase fishing opportunity enough to support this important work.

Steelhead, which can exceed 30 pounds, are highly regarded game fish. They are the same species as rainbow trout, but while rainbow trout remain in freshwater, steelhead are “anadromous” and travel to the ocean before returning to spawn in freshwater.

Ryan Scott nets a steelhead. Photo by Joe Princen.

Unlike salmon, steelhead can survive spawning and return to spawn more than once. However, because they spend a significant portion of their juvenile and adult life stages in freshwater, they are particularly susceptible to habitat degradation and other pressures.

WDFW continues to operate under its Statewide Steelhead Management Plan, which requires the Department to prioritize the sustainability of wild coastal steelhead runs by focusing on healthy levels of abundance, productivity, diversity, and distribution. Unlike most other parts of the state, steelhead along the coast are not listed under the Endangered Species Act, though there have been petitions to list them.

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The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife

The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife is dedicated to preserving, protecting and perpetuating the state’s fish and wildlife resources.