Yes, the Cascade, Columbia and Olympic streams still have plenty of fish, but the question is are the runs 'healthy'? Run health is relative and the thresholds of escapement/harvest and even catch & release are not and must not be measured by recreational metrics. These are the last remnants of native steelhead in the lower 48, indigenous steelhead hanging on despite dams, logging, tribal gillnetting, siltation of spawning areas, waterway modifications for suburban sprawl. etc. These are native steelhead, the real McCoy, very much a national treasure to be guarded with caution. One only needs to look at atlantic salmon debacle in the northeast to see how quickly such a run can vanish from the face of the earth. The health of these populations is a topic of much debate and lies squarely in the center of a huge social, economical, political and scientific dilemma in the pacific northwest.
For me the urgency in the pacific northwest is not about a fishery, it's about protecting the sacred concept of a fish that wiggles from the gravel in a glacial headwater and battles to survive a 7,000 mile round trip across turquoise seas of the north pacific to find it's natal stream and perpetuate it's legacy as it has for many thousands if not millions of years. It matters enough not to fish a river even when several thousand fish return because there needs to be a threshold of survival to ensure the next generation.
In Washington alone there are hundreds of other places to vent such frustration. Once you include Oregon, British Columbia, and Alaska, there are no excuses for an angler whose pet river has been closed. In fact one Columbia tributary that never closes has produced something in the order of 16 thousand rod and reel caught steelhead in a season. The Columbia River has perhaps a hundred significant tributaries herself, most of which have runs. The steelhead counts on the Bonneville fish ladder during 2001 were up around 700,000 steelhead last I checked. You wouldn't have had any lack of fish to swing a fly at this year, that's for sure. And many of these are summer fish, short sleeves and dry flies for hot summer run steelhead. On top of that there are five species of salmon, sea run trout, and ocean fishing for numerous species but most uniquely the feeding salmon in the ocean on flies.
But I don't want to paint a rosy picture. Not withstanding 2001 returns, the Columbia produces only about 13% of it's salmonid on average when compared to runs during the 1930's, so the impact of our poor fish management practices is undeniable. But it's hard to say that the pacific northwest can be considered unworthy of a visit for an angling venue. All I ever need is the slightest excuse and I am there
Call me a sentimentalist, but for me steelheading isn't about the fish. The magical Skagit and Sauk, Skykomish etc - are legendary places to be never mind fish for steelhead. Even when there are plenty of fish it's not an easy fishery, and even when the runs are down you still might hook a chrome freight train that jumps like a tarpon. When and if you catch up to it, you might find that it is a native, a fish whose years of it's ancestry in that river defies our mere comprehension, and that we had nothing to do with it's being there except for the privilege of the encounter before release to continue it's important calling upstream. It goes much, much deeper than sport. It's downright religious.
I care far more that we as a species are doing the best thing to ensure the welfare of the steelhead as a species than about my angling pleasure. For me it's not whether I get to fish or not, it's whether the steelhead thrives so that I can fish for them without it being a problem. If it is a problem, we should leave them alone.
Despite all that, I am admittedly also an avid sportsman. It's really great to hear that the steelhead are thriving in Lake Michigan tribs and I would really like to come experience this 120 year old wild run you have going. Apart from my passion for the fight for native steelhead in the PNW, I'm sure I would be thrilled to experience the Upper Peninsula winter runs and hope I get the opportunity soon. Thanks for the insightful information on the region. Hopefully we can 'hook up' sometime.