A new world-record steelhead was recently landed on the Hoh River, and predictably, the Intertubes erupted in controversy over the fly fisherman’s decision to kill the wild steelhead, ostensibly because it was bleeding out:

World record steelhead on the Hoh River? Bleeding out??

World record steelhead on the Hoh River? Bleeding out??

Someone forward an email outlining the story of Peter Harrison of Port Townsend, who exhaustively detailed his battle with the record steelhead in terms I’d suggest are a little on the mock heroic side, which probably isn’t helping his cause:

At around 2 PM I was swinging my fly through some good-looking water and something that I can only describe as a lightning bolt hit my whole body. Suddenly my Ross reel was screaming at a decibel level usually reserved for Rolling Stone concerts. In a couple of heartbeats 200 yards of line had disappeared from my reel as the fish headed for Alaska.

I told myself not to panic, but my whole body was shaking; I knew that if I could survive the first round I would at least have some chance of getting the fish to the bank. For the next 30 minutes I battled the fish, standing at times chest deep in the middle of the river on a submerged bar.

At this point I had not seen the fish, but eventually I managed to make it back to the river bank and was able to stand on dry ground. At that time the fish exploded into the air, executing three cartwheels. I couldn’t believe my eyes, the fish was almost 4 feet in length. I had never seen a steelhead like it. After 45 minutes of battling the fish I managed to beach it gently.

My intention was to let it go, having first measured the fish, but it was bleeding quite heavily from the gills. As it seemed likely not survive the ordeal, and because it was the fish of a lifetime, I decided to take the fish. In 10 years of fishing Washington state rivers this is the first fish I have ever taken, of any kind, from a river.

As Buster Wants to Fish noted, the Washington fly fishing board has already accumulated 11 pages of comments, many of which are not exactly favorable (the thread degenerates into the usual C&R vs C&K arguments, trolls, etc).

Based on the photos, some doubt the contention that blood was streaming out the gills (you can see the fly stuck in the fish’s nose), but in truth, none of us will ever know.

My first reaction wasn’t simply one of sadness over the removal of the monster fish from the gene pool; it’s that our steelhead fisheries are so messed up that the loss of just one fires up this kind of response.

With Oregon inching towards a logging plan that will further deplete its steelhead runs, many of California’s steelhead and salmon facing extinction, and Washington’s steelhead runs not meeting management goals (which most suggest are too low), the problem isn’t that one guy killed a world-record steelhead.

It’s that our rivers aren’t teeming with monsters like that every year.

Dylan Tomine adds a welcome bit of actual knowledge to the mess:

The fact that it’s even still legal to kill a wild steelhead on the Hoh is ridiculous. The river has not met escapement in 9 of the last 17 years and has shown a marked decline in recent times. That’s part of the bigger picture I’m talking about.

On one popular regional fishing bulletin board, at last count, there were 9 pages of posts condemning the angler for killing this single fish, while just below that there were several threads outlining political actions currently ongoing in Washington, and none of them had even half the response.

As a rule, humanity is a lot better at righteousness than we are at not mucking things up to begin with. And as Tomine points out, the right to “legally” kill wild fish on a river that’s already scraping bottom is the real lunacy here, yet it’s not a thought that provides much comfort.

Through the maze of political “realities” (translation: somebody’s getting screwed), anadromous fish continue to experience the short, brown end of the stick, and right here in my own county, our addled Board of Supervisors have dedicated themselves to fighting dam removal on the Klamath River despite the very real economic boon that would follow should the Klamath return to health and see salmon and steelhead runs a fraction of their former glory.

And yes, I’ll just say it; I have never fully grasped the sportsman’s need for trophies or “world” record keeping, especially when the latter seem useful only in documenting the precipitous decline in the quality of our fisheries.

See you on the river, Tom Chandler.

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