Mukilteo man reels in national conservation awardThrough coalition, Simms stopped sport harvest of steelhead in Washington
Rich Simms has been obsessed with wild steelhead since boyhood.
“I’d always been a fishing obsessed kid,” said Simms, 59, of Mukilteo. “Steelhead were always special to me because they were harder to come by.”
Ever since reeling in his first steelhead at age 12, in the summer of ’69, while standing in Dogfish Creek near his home in Poulsbo, Simms has felt an intimate connection between himself, the fish and the place it has called its spawning grounds for centuries.
In fact, the steelhead is Washington’s official state fish.
As a boy, he and his uncle would load up a ’57 Chevy Carryall and set off on odysseys around the Olympic Peninsula in search of steelhead.
“I used to drive my dad and my uncle crazy,” he said. “Whenever we would drive over a bridge, I would say, ‘Hey, you think there’s fish in that river?’”
By the late ‘80s, Simms began to realize the chances of hooking a steelhead in many Puget Sound tributaries were diminishing.
“I remember looking at this fish and thinking, ‘Why am I killing something that I love so much,’” he said. “That was my transition point.”
By 2000, winter steelhead returns had fallen far enough that the state Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) closed Puget Sound streams to anglers.
“They were closed because of declining returns,” Simms said. “We as fly fishermen didn’t want to criticize the department for closing it; we wanted to know what got us to this point. What could we as anglers do? We decided we could reduce the level of fish we harvest.”
When Simms and a few others started the Wild Steelhead Coalition in 2001, a licensed angler could harvest as many as 30 steelhead a year.
“I decided I didn’t want to be part of the problem anymore, I wanted to be part of the solution,” said Simms, who set out with a few of his fellow fly fishermen to put a stop to sport harvesting of wild steelhead all together.
In December 2015, the WDFW made the harvest of wild steelhead for sport entirely illegal, due in large part to the coalition’s years of petitioning for change.
‘Conservationist of the Year’
That accomplishment has earned Simms the first inaugural Conservationist of the Year award from Fly Fisherman magazine, the leading magazine of fly fishing for more than 45 years.
“It kind of caught me off guard,” Simms said. “That there were people out there who looked at my work over time and wanted to nominate me is humbling; it’s an honor.”
A nine-person panel selected Simms from more than 80 nominees nationwide. Far Bank Enterprises, the parent company of Sage, Redington, and RIO, sponsored the award, granting $10,000 to the coalition Simms co-founded. In fact, Far Bank helped conceive of the award in the first place.
“Far Bank has been doing a lot behind the scenes toward conservation and protection of fishery habitat, and preserving access to those fisheries,” spokesperson Tag Kleiner said of the Bainbridge holding company.
“We felt like we’d been doing a lot on the national and international level, but not recognizing those getting their hands dirty in the field on a more local level. We really like how far our contribution will go with these grassroots guys. There’s a lot less red tape with something like this, plus it gives some international notoriety to people like Rich.”
The money will support the coalition’s work to increase steelhead returns on the West Coast through legislative means, such as cutting the number of stocked fish sharing rivers with wild steelhead, combating habitat loss and removing human-constructed barriers to migration.
“This is one of our state symbols,” Simms said. “We should be doing more to honor that. If one of our other state symbols were in bad shape, there would be more outcry. I think it’s important to protect our heritage.”
In nominating Simms, coalition chair Jonathan Stumpf wrote, “Despite all of the sacrifices he has made and all the success he has achieved, Rich has never once sought recognition for his efforts. Fifteen years in and he is still the most enthusiastic, humble, collaborative and selfless person sitting at any steelhead conservation table.”
Passing the torch
Simms is not one to bask in the adoration of his peers without spreading it around.
“I am delighted and appreciative that people took notice,” he said, “but there are a lot of people who have helped me along the way.”
While the praise may be overdue, Simms would rather be fishing.
“The problem is, I want to go fishing all the time,” said the Boeing industrial engineer and father of three who has called Mukilteo home since 2007. “It is my thing. I want my boys to like it as much as I do, but I also don’t want to force it on them. They do get pretty excited whenever they get a fish, though.”
Simms said he and his family – including wife Ingrid, 16-year-old son Derek and 12-year-old twins Kyle and Braden – enjoy outdoor activities such as skiing, camping, hiking and mountain biking. Still, casting a fly while knee deep in the consistent current of a Puget Sound creek will always hold a special place in Simms’ heart.
“Fish live in some of the most beautiful places in the world,” he said. “Fishing allows me to be there, too. It connects me to the natural world.”
If nothing else, he hopes to instill a similar appreciation in his sons.
“Nature can be one of the best teachers in the world and, sometimes, I feel like we’re losing that in our society,” he said. “There isn’t enough time dedicated to engaging with our natural environment. We need to help our kids understand the value of having these things in our lives.”