Save the steelhead, save ourselves

From where I sit, the headline at first sounds almost like a joke: "Puget Sound steelhead declared `threatened.'"

The punch line: Not by me.

I can say with full authority that no steelhead in these parts has ever, once, looked up from his hiding spot, seen me stumbling around on the rocks, shivering and cursing and bleeding, and felt threatened in the least.

Astonished, perhaps, that I keep flipping that tangled mass of beads and cork and yarn and hooks in front of his snout, hoping for - what? A courtesy strike?

Bemused, clearly, by the entire thing.

Threatened? Nope.

I learned to pursue the wily steelhead - for those of you from Connecticut, an amazing, sea-run trout that is to pan-sized rainbows what a single M&M is to a pound and a half of fudge - the way many other people in these parts did: from my dad.

Hate to say it, but steelhead didn't feel too threatened by Dad, either. Combing the memory banks, my mind drifts most immediately to one fishing trip, in the dead of winter, on the banks of the Snoqualmie River.

It was cold. Dad, always thinking ahead, had brought along a Duraflame log, which he placed on the sandbar right above us as we stood, like any good steelheaders, waiting for a strike that would never come.

Within a few minutes, that Duraflame was crackling, and the heat felt good. Dad had been especially crafty, I noticed, to build the fire at waist level, on a sandy shelf where the sandbar dropped into the river. You could turn around and warm your hands without even bending over.

A few minutes later, we got caught up in not catching fish - going through the ritual of clearing weeds and other detritus from our lines. Somewhere behind us, a chunk of that flaming Duraflame broke off. It rolled down the bank, coming to rest against Dad's shoe. And set his pant leg on fire.

To this day I am certain it is the only time I've ever seen my dad dance. And I'm almost equally certain it's the last time we went chasing steelhead, at least one of which I know was there, in the river, lying low and laughing.

I spent many later years tromping around on riverbanks in the winter and, on occasion, in warmer days in pursuit of an elusive summer-run. Lately, the hunt has rarely seemed worth the effort to get there, get licensed, get geared up, get cold - and get skunked.

And this is, sadly, the point. Steelhead in the waters of Puget Sound, which grow up to 30 pounds and never, ever give up once hooked, have never been very threatened by me or other Judd progeny in a line-caught kind of way. But alas, they're threatened by all of us in many others.

I imagine this week's listing of local steelhead as "threatened" under the federal Endangered Species Act is seen as both sad and hopeful by anglers.

Sad, because steelhead numbers have been depleted - mostly by human activity in the foothills streams these fish call home - to levels that not even the current batch of hell-bent-on-destruction feds can ignore. Hopeful because some part of us likes to think maybe it's not too late.

The steelhead is yet another choking canary in the mine we call home. It joins the Puget Sound chinook, the Hood Canal chum, the Puget Sound bull trout and the orca whale on the Western Washington brink-of-doom list. Anyone need more proof that the way we've interacted with the natural world around here in the past century isn't working?

Reversing the trend line on the Puget Sound steelhead won't be easy. It might not even be possible. But we should pursue it for the same reason we pursue the fish in the first place: because they're out there, they are part and parcel with who we are, and we've got to try.

That's likely to mean further sacrifices, for everybody. Experts say protecting steelhead will be a lot like protecting salmon - cleaner water in the Sound, better spawning habitat in rivers. But it's likely to move some protections even farther upstream, where steelhead thrive and salmon do not.

With the listing, all of this becomes official: We either bite the bullet, or the steelhead becomes just another free-tickets-to-Bumbershoot Northwest childhood memory.

Here's a novel thought: Let's for once do what it takes.

I'm not likely to spend many more winter days beating the brush, slipping and sliding, freezing and cursing in pursuit of the wily steelhead, the most magnificent fish in any river.

But by God, every time I look into the water of a river from Humptulips to Everson from tomorrow until I die, some deep part of me wants _ needs _ to know he's still out there, lying low and laughing.