By Lydia Denney / ldenney@chronline.com

Starting at a young age, Lee Barkie had an interest in fishing and a wonderment at what existed below the water’s surface. Born and raised fishing the Cowlitz, Barkie has spent the past 30 years learning new tricks, trying new things and running a fishing guide business. However, after a back injury and the decreasing return in fish, Barkie hasn’t been able to guide for the past two years.

“You can only take people so long and not catch any fish and they stop going with you,” Barkie said. “I refuse to take people when I know it’s slow.”

In the past, Barkie worked in construction on and off, but he became involved in sport fishing around 1987 when he was working at tackle shop where customers would often ask for fishing guide references. Soon after Barkie became friends with other fishing guides, he began guiding full time. Today, however, many guides say you can’t make it as a full time guide anymore because there is such a lack of fish, it doesn’t pay to go, Barkie said.

Lee Barkie fishing with his grandson on the Cowlitz River in 2015.

“As a full time guide, we started having issues with the fish management plan on the Cowlitz River,” Barkie said. “The Cowlitz River is the bread and butter for this community.”

Over the past 30 years, Barkie spent time representing sport fisheries at a state level, going to meetings all over Washington and Oregon because he wanted to enhance sport fishing for the economy and for children, Barkie said. Now, Barkie said he worries about running out of fish in his lifetime.

“I want to do it for the kids,” Barkie said. “I know how much I enjoyed it growing up… they all want to go fishing but they don’t want to go on a boat ride. It’s no fun to go if you don’t catch anything.”

Because of low fish returns over the last decade, he has seen a lot of businesses affected including his own, Barkie said. Even though he is no longer guiding, motels, restaurants and other guides continue to call Barkie to ask why business has decreased.

“You build your business up, you build your name up, you try to do everything right,” Barkie said. “But, like farming, you can be a great farmer, but all it takes is a rainstorm.”

Lee Barkie, left, and Tim Himelbigger fishing on the Cowlitz River in 2015.

In 2000, Barkie began fishing on the Columbia River where there were more fish and said he is known as the first guide to work that river. Barkie said he spent time learning how to catch fish there before everyone else started fishing on the Columbia around 2008.

“For me to keep catching fish and keep guiding, I would have to move to the Columbia River and learn how to catch those fish,” Barkie said. “I worked very hard at it, at my own expense. I didn’t ask for help from anybody.”

Not only is the lack of fish affecting businesses, but it is also now affecting the ocean and Orca whales, Barkie said. One reason he thinks the fish return has continued to decrease is that hatcheries aren’t compensating for the fish that die or are eaten after they leave the hatchery. Barkie wishes that the money from fishing licenses would be used for the hatcheries to follow the laws in place and for the hatcheries to focus on predation issues.

In 2016, a new fish management plan was supposed to be completed and released, but Barkie argued Tacoma Power and the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife are still mismanaging the hatcheries.

“You’ve got two big companies raising these fish, and when it doesn’t go as it’s supposed to, you get the general public and other people that start pointing fingers at each company,” Barkie said.

Lee Barkie fishing on the Columbia River.