Reeling in the big ones: steelhead fishing is big business, but state budget cuts could curtail fishery management.
Sitting in a boat, in the middle of the Columbia River, under a clear dark sky, is not a bad way to start a business day.
For Shane Magnuson, owner of Upper Columbia Guide Services, it's an office with a water view, and he's definitely onto something.
At the confluence of the Methow and the Columbia Rivers, just outside of Pateros, the water was glassy calm and quiet as the sun rose above the surrounding snow-dusted hills.
It was cold.
Like all good fishing, steelhead fishing begins before sunrise, but with a season that runs through the fall and winter, it's a sport marked by snowy banks, freezing fish lines and diehard anglers.
It's also a sport marked heavily by government regulation, massive monetary investment and budgetary constraints--next year the Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife is facing up to $30 million in cuts, which officials say will likely curtail fishing in north central Washington in some way.
But out on the water before sunrise, all of that seems very far away.
"This isn't cold. Give it two weeks," Magnuson said as he steered his Duckworth fishing boat to the side of the river.
Magnuson started his business seven years ago at the age of 19 and runs two, four-person guide boats on the Columbia River. He's become somewhat of an authority in the local fishing world and his business shows it.
He's booked out five to six days a week from the end of April until October for the summer salmon season, and steelhead fishing isn't far behind.
With a $370 minimum for two people per day for steelhead fishing and a $400 minimum for salmon fishing, he's doing a pretty good business.
"Try not to touch the jigs because it gets your scent on it. That's why I wear these gloves" Magnuson said holding up his blue latex-covered fingers with a mischievous grin. Earlier, the gloves had sparked a good round of TSA-themed shop talk.
"I'm a scent fanatic," he says in all seriousness, grabbing the "jig and corky" system--basically shrimp tails on a brightly colored hook and a bobber--from his client Tony Agostinelli, a 33-year-old electrician from Carnation, and adjusts the bait.
Agostinelli winds back with his rod and casts. The line lets out a long "zzzzz" and plunks into the river.
"There we go. Nice!" Magnuson said.
In 1805, Meriwether Lewis, during his expedition down the Columbia with William Clark, wrote in his journal of salmon spawning:
"The number of dead salmon on the shores and floating in the river is incredible to say ... at this season they float in such quantities down the stream, and are drifted ashore, that the Indians only have to collect, split, and dry them on the scaffolds."
Fisheries Biologist Dennis Dauble presented that quote during a presentation at the Wenatchee Valley Museum on the history of fish in the Columbia Basin in early November.
While Lewis' scene is hard to imagine, Dauble said that, as a result of things like over-harvesting and hydropower development, today's salmon population is roughly 10 percent of what it historically was.
In 1997, Upper Columbia steelhead were listed on the Endangered Species Act as endangered, and in 1999, Upper Columbia spring Chinook followed suit.
Since then, millions upon millions of dollars have been spent by local non-profit organizations, federal and state agencies, as well as public utility districts to try and return fish populations to local fisheries.
That's obviously good for the species, but the convenient offshoot is that fishing is a huge economic driver for the state and local economies.
In 2006, recreational fisheries created 11,918 jobs for resident anglers and generated $346.1 million in personal income in the state of Washington, according to a 2009 report by the WDFW.
Recreational fishing trip-related expenditures generated $354.9 million, and according to a report by the Congressional Sportsmen's Foundation, fishing-related spending amounts to $1.03 billion a year.
The economic impact of freshwater fishing in Chelan County alone was $23.2 million in 2009, according to numbers from the WDFW and provided by the Wenatchee Valley Sports Council.
"The role of fishing in economic development in the upper Columbia is incredibly important," said Derek Van Marter, associate director for the Upper Columbia Salmon Recovery Board, an organization that partners with local county governments, tribes, public utility districts and private interests to restore fish populations in a way that is not only scientifically sound but economically viable for stakeholders.
"The local economy benefits through hotels, through local restaurants, and then the providers of fishing tackle gear" Van Marter said.
Small towns, big business
Wenatchee Valley Sports Council Executive Director Eric Grandstrom said that of the nearly 500,000 freshwater licensed fishermen in the state, nearly 48 percent of all freshwater fishing was done in Eastern Washington.
That's huge for little towns like Pateros where, beyond agriculture, there's not a lot to drive the economy. The Pateros Lakeshore Inn is probably the most visible and recent example of how fishing tourism makes its presence felt.
The Inn opened in April of 2010 and General Manager Judy Asmussen said that 25 percent of their hotel business, and 40 percent of their attached restaurant business comes from fishing tourism.
"If I didn't have fishing I would have to lay off people," She said. "There just isn't the kind of traffic up here without it"
About eight miles north of Pateros, Bob Fateley, the owner of the Triangle Shell Food Mart and Tackle Shop in Brewster, has also made his living on fishing. Fateley has been in the game for 40 years and has made himself a must-stop resource for out-of-town and out-of-state fishermen looking for the scoop on where to fish.
"In July and August it'll add about $85,000 a month to my gross," he said. "It's unbelievable"
A few years ago, Fateley said he worked up some numbers for the game department and figured out that the summer salmon season alone brings about $2 million to the Brewster-Pateros area.
"For the town, it's a huge, huge deal," he said.
But those economic impacts ring closer to home as well.
"Over the last seven years, the fishing industry has changed in a major way around here," said Don Talbot, local fishing guru at the Wenatchee-based Hooked on Toys. "We've gone from $300,000 in sales in salmon to $1.5 million sales in salmon in seven years. That's major growth."
That's partly due to expanded fish populations in the past couple years, and partly due to the regions easy access to fishing it, said local TV and radio personality Fishing Magician Dave Graybill.
"When you look at the quality of fishing that is available to us now, particularly in salmon and steelhead, I mean we've had record runs for all species" Graybill said.
Graybill said to draw a 90 mile circumference circle on a map anywhere in North Central Washington and you'll be able to go fishing in any number of places throughout the year. That's not common to other places around the state, and traffic to his website for his fishing reports reflects the interest paid to the region.
"As of the end of October, I had over 3,800,000 hits" he said. "I'm averaging about 400,000 a month. The interest in fishing is extremely high"
Does interest equal support?
Jeff Korth, Region 2 fish program manager out of Ephrata for the WDFW, said it should. Korth said his department could be taking a $4 million hit on both of their funding sources in the upcoming biennium if certain fee increases are not extended, and that will likely impact fishing in the area.
Part of that is due to shortfalls in state general fund revenues. Those cuts are unavoidable, he said. But the other cuts could take place in the department's other funding source, the Wildlife Fund, which is mainly funded by license sales.
In the last biennium, to help cover shortfalls from the 2009-2010 budget, a 10 percent surcharge was placed on all licenses sold. That's set to expire in 2011 and if it does, they'll take a hit, he said.
Another surcharge was placed specifically on salmon and steelhead fishing in the upper Columbia River.
That stamp garnered approximately $1 million dollars, which helped fund critical services such as creel surveys which are necessary for monitoring the populations of fish in individual fisheries.
"If we can't tell what kind of impact we're having as the fishery proceeds, what kind of impact we're having on the spring Chinook and steelhead up there, we cannot conduct those fisheries" he said.
Those surveys cost his office about $300,000 every year, nearly half of his annual budget.
Korth said those endorsements play an important role in their efforts, which he said are not only concerned with habitat preservation, but also associated economic development for the community.
"We need the constituent's support to keep those things going, to keep those fees coming in, or we're going to be in a world of hurt to keep all these fisheries moving along."
For Magnuson and Agostinelli, those are worthwhile investments. With the sun high in the sky and lines bobbing in the river, the two discussed the inherent costs and rewards of fishing.
"Well that's the thing about money, you can't take it with you" Magnuson said.
"Correct" Agostinelli replied. 'Tin convinced. I've pretty much got a rod for every situation ... I really like fishing."
BY LEE FEHRENBACHER