Skagit River wild steelhead forecast promising as work continues on federal review of fishery plan

A wild steelhead caught and released on the Skagit River during a previous season. Photo courtesy of Greg Fitz.

Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) fish biologists and tribal co-managers have forecasted that 5,211 wild steelhead will return to the Skagit River in 2023.

WDFW fishery managers hope to hold a catch and release steelhead fishing season on the Skagit and its major tributary the Sauk River in early 2023 — likely five days per week from February into April — pending the review from the National Marine Fisheries Service, part of the federal National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

Tribal co-managers may also operate modest wild steelhead-directed fisheries under the proposed management plan currently being reviewed by federal fisheries managers.

To review and provide comment on the Skagit River Steelhead Fishery Resource Management Plan (RMP), please visit the NOAA Fisheries project page at: fisheries.noaa.gov/action/skagit-river-steelhead-fishery-joint-resource-management-plan

WDFW and tribal co-managers submitted a similar Skagit River Steelhead Fishery RMP in 2018 and NOAA Fisheries approved it covering the period from 2018 through 2022. A new authorization is required for directed steelhead fisheries beginning in 2023. The new RMP proposes to cover these fisheries for ten years.

These recreational and tribal fisheries did not open in 2022 due to low forecasted returns of wild steelhead to the Skagit River. Limited fisheries were held in 2018, 2019, and 2021.

The plan continues to include several “Allowable Harvest Rates” (shown below) depending on the forecasted run size. These are ceilings for the maximum allowed wild steelhead mortality from all fisheries, though WDFW and the tribes may exercise additional caution depending on return forecasts and other factors. The 2023 steelhead forecast is sufficient for fisheries to proceed with a 10% Allowable Harvest Rate.

The state share of the 10% Allowable Harvest Rate of the 2023 wild steelhead return will be from hooking mortalities associated with the steelhead-directed catch and release fisheries, and incidental encounters during all other Skagit Basin sport fisheries. The hooking mortality rate used is 10%, which is from the best available science and is prescribed in the RMP. This rate of estimated steelhead mortality from catch and release fishing using selective gear is consistent with other Washington steelhead fisheries, including those on coastal rivers.

WDFW and Skagit River tribal co-managers continue to pursue methods to assess steelhead returns in-season. Annual test fishery data from drifted tangle nets shows promise on informing in-season updates, and advancements in sonar technology are also being examined.

A steelhead angler casts into a seam at sunrise near the confluence of the Skagit and Sauk rivers. Photo by Chase Gunnell.

The wild steelhead is Washington’s State Fish, and the Skagit Basin holds venerable status among steelheaders as the birthplace of several fishing techniques.

These include the “Skagit style” of two-handed spey casting and heavy “Skagit lines” for fly fishing, both developed by Washington anglers in the 20th century for effectiveness in the wide, fast-moving river draining the western flanks of the North Cascades.

The Skagit and Sauk rivers are also home to iconic gear fishing traditions, including the deployment of plugs fished behind boats rowed by anglers, as fishing while under motor power is not allowed in the Skagit or Sauk rivers during steelhead seasons, and fishing from a boat with a motor attached is not allowed in the Sauk.

In 2007, steelhead in the Puget Sound Distinct Population Segment (DPS) including wild fish returning to the Skagit were listed as threatened under the federal Endangered Species Act. If approved, the Skagit River Steelhead Fishery Resource Management Plan allows state and tribal co-managers to operate steelhead-directed fisheries with stringent regulations, monitoring and catch sampling, and enforcement

From the Skagit Estuary to upstream projects like Barnaby Slough, WDFW, tribal governments and numerous other groups continue working to recover wild steelhead, protect and restore habitat, and remove fish passage barriers to improve fish survival in the Skagit Basin.

The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife works to preserve, protect and perpetuate fish, wildlife and ecosystems while providing sustainable fish and wildlife recreational and commercial opportunities.

A happy angler holds a wild steelhead caught and released on the Sauk River during the 2021 season. Photo courtesy of Jeffrey Drale.

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

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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.