We Need More Fly-Fishing-Only Rivers

By Beacon Staff

Before all the non-flycasters get excited about the headline, I should say that I like all kinds of fishing, not just fly-fishing, a problem that has made my life a constant struggle against poverty. In fact, I have more spinning and baitcasting rods than fly rods, and probably use them more, too.

Nonetheless, today, I’m feeling sorry for those anglers who only use fly rods. I think fisheries managers should throw them a bone by designating a few stretches of a few rivers as fly-fishing-only – especially a few rivers with steelhead in them.

If you’ve been reading my NewWest.Net articles lately, you know I’m hooked on steelhead and am now part of the Steelhead Fever pandemic. I recently caught my first steelhead on a fly, and during that little adventure, it became clear how tough it is for the fly-fishing-only among us.

When you go to a steelhead river, you always find lots of steelheaders, and most of them aren’t fly-fishing. Many steelhead rivers aren’t well suited for fly-fishing. Of those that are, I believe only three sections of three rivers in the entire Pacific Northwest are reserved for flycasters to have their experience without competing with anglers fishing with bait and jigs.

Two of those rivers are in Oregon, parts of the North Umpqua and Rogue, and one is in Washington, one section of the Hoko. Idaho has a lot of steelhead water, but no sections of any river restricted to fly-fishing-only.

Ditto for the other steelhead hot spot, the Great Lakes region. I could have missed something in my little survey, but I called the fisheries folks in Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin. These states have all great steelhead fishing, but none of them have a single section of any stream reserved for fly-fishing-only.

Michigan has an “artificial fly only” designation, which seems like a strange regulation to me. It means people can either fly-fish or rig up a spinning rod with a strike indicator and weighed fly, which isn’t much different than fishing with a bobber and a jig. (I suspect there’s some overlap between a feathered jig and a weighted nymph, and I’d hate to be the game warden who had to tell the difference.) But the “artificial fly” compromise might be a good idea worth exploring out in the Pacific Northwest.

Washington has something similar called the “one hook, no barb, no bait” regulation. This cuts out bait anglers and prevents back trolling with plugs and casting with spinners and other treble-hook lure – and thins down the crowds of steelheaders. So, let’s call both the Michigan and Washington “fly-fishing-friendly” regs a step in the right direction.

One reason fisheries managers don’t favor fly-fishing-only regs for steelhead is the goal of removing hatchery fish from the system to emphasize wild steelhead reproduction. Agencies can’t require anglers take steelhead home for dinner, of course, but they can encourage it. Since flycasters are, by their nature, much more likely to release fish, it becomes counterproductive to promote fly-fishing.

After reading this column, non-flycasters might be saying, OK, then let’s have some rivers for bait fishing or jig fishing only. To that, my answer would be, that seems fair. Most big, deep-running coastal rivers in Oregon and Washington are, by nature’s design, de facto no-fly-fishing streams. In general, coastal rivers aren’t suited for fly-fishing until the gradient kicks up in mountainous upstream sections. But most inland rivers in Idaho and eastern parts of Oregon and Washington and in the lake states are better designed for fly-fishing.

Is it so much to ask that a small percentage – let’s say about 2 percent –of these steelhead rivers be set aside for fly-fishing-only? If an equal amount of stream (or more) must be set aside for non-fly fishing, I’m sure flycasters wouldn’t object.

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