MOXEE, Wash. -- More than three dozen sportfishing rule changes in Eastern Washington and Columbia region freshwater for 2013-14 are "recommended for public comment" as the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife floats its proposals before the public in outreach meetings such as the one slated today in Moxee.
One idea that isn't being recommended for public comment -- but isn't necessarily dead in the water -- is one that would turn the entire Naches River into a catch-and-release trout fishery.
Since 2003, the Naches has been catch-and-release-only from June through October between its confluences with the Tieton and Rattlesnake rivers. Above the Rattlesnake and below the Tieton, anglers on the Naches can catch and keep two trout 12 inches long or longer.
Last May, a dozen Yakima-area anglers proposed making the whole river catch-and-release in the hopes of seeing the Naches turn into a blue-ribbon trout fishery like that in the Yakima River Canyon. The reaction of regional fish managers was mixed; they nixed year-round-fishing and a fly-fishing-only stipulations among the proposals, but weren't opposed in principle to a catch-and-release Naches River.
The decision-makers in Olympia, though, were opposed.
Craig Burley, who heads up the WDFW's fish management division, said the different sections of the river delineated to harvest and and to catch-and-release were "providing a good balance of opportunity in the Naches."
A note on the WDFW website said going catch-and-release only on the Naches "would potentially reduce recreational use of the resource."
It might not be much of a reduction, though, according to one of the proposal authors.
"The catch-and-release section of the Naches River has gotten busier and busier over time," said Joe Rotter of Ellensburg, who often guides clients on the Naches River and teaches classes on how to fish the river. "The vast majority of people fishing there are already practicing catch-and-release."
Creel census done before and after the river's Rattlesnake-to-Tieton stretch went to catch-and-release-only tends to support that suggestion.
In 2002, about 630 legal-sized trout were caught along the 10.5-mile river stretch of the Naches between the Tieton and Rattlesnake and the 10.5-mile stretch above it, and only 63 of those fish were harvested. In 2003, after the lower stretch officially was switched to catch-and-release, the harvest take for the upper stretch -- which remained open to trout retention -- stayed around that same 10 percent.
Basically, most anglers already were catching and releasing even before they had to.
"The whole idea was to see," recalled WDFW regional fish program manager John Easterbrooks, "when we created this (catch-and-release) area, did we get more effort? Did we attract more fishermen?
"The minute you put the catch-and-release tag on a section of river, psychologically people think, 'Ah, catch and release,' there will be more fish to catch and there will be bigger fish ... I want to go there.' "
Rotter said managing the entire Naches River the same way, as catch-and-release from source to the mouth, "would give people a greater opportunity to catch a fish and to do so without having to stand next to somebody else."
The idea of a catch-and-release stretch of river with older, larger trout is an obvious draw for sport anglers in it for the challenge -- especially since larger fish have probably been caught once or twice and are presumably wiser, wilier and harder to catch.
But what about the angler for whom taking away the opportunity to harvest a fish might remove a necessary meal from that family's kitchen table, asked Charmane Ashbrook, the WDFW's fishing sport rules unit leader.
Still, Ashbrook said, the state's decision not to support for consideration catch-and-release throughout the entire Naches River system -- the Rattlesnake, like the Tieton-to-Rattlesnake stretch, is already catch-and-release -- "is not a done deal."
A public meeting like the one Thursday in Moxee "is a good forum if people feel strongly about a proposal and want the opportunity to share their ideas with a group," she said, but isn't necessarily the best way to generate support that might sway Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission members.
Ashbrook said rule-change advocates should use the WDFW's online public-comment process (wdfw.wa.gov/fishing/regulations/rule_proposals/), which runs through Dec. 15, or comment in person at the commission's January meeting.