Five Facts About Steelhead – by April Vokey

Flies for SteelheadSeveral years ago I spoke with steelhead expert/biologist Bill McMillan while collecting data for a column I was writing. I recently stumbled upon the article in my folders and thought it would be worthwhile to share…

Five steelhead facts worth knowing:

1)  It is no secret in the world of steelhead fishing that there are two distinct runs of steelhead. Appropriately termed “winter-run” and “summer-run” steelhead, it is a fair assumption that winter-run fish enter the freshwater system during the winter months, while summer-runs begin their migration earlier in the year during the spring and summer.

Beginning as early as November and continuing through May, winter-run fish enter the system at a relatively developed stage of maturation. Their bellies are robust; their time scarce and their attention concentrated.

Upon entering freshwater and undergoing the transition from saltwater to freshwater, winter-run fish have a limited time to spawn before their reproductive systems are ripe with sperm and eggs.

Conversely, summer-run fish begin to venture into freshwater as early as April, entering in abundance through the warmer months before beginning to trickle off by November.

Sexual maturation in these summer fish differs substantially from their winter-run counterparts. Reproductive organs in summer-run steelhead do not begin to mature until after their transition from salt to freshwater. Historically harvested, it is documented that the entrails of retained steelhead were not only immature, they were near barren.
Mild weather and comfortable water temperatures increase the metabolisms of summer-run steelhead and their aggression is anything but subtle. These differences make summer-run fish a sought after quarry for many angling enthusiasts.

Despite the differences in their migration timing, both winter and summer-run fish typically spawn in the spring/early summer time frame.

Dean River Steelhead

2)  Naturally, given the above data, timing is a vital factor of a steelhead’s migration pattern.
Maturation inevitably drives both summer and winter fish towards a schedule – one which is presumably more lax than the other.

Winter fish, swollen and up against Mother nature’s clock, primarily dominate tributaries within 100 miles of the ocean. Summer fish on the other hand can spend up to a year in freshwater, historically traveling as far as 800 miles away from the salt. Both races of fish have been known to survive up to one year in freshwater without feeding in abundance.

Battling long journeys and major obstacles, summer-runs often require the extra time allowance to ensure a punctual arrival to their spawning beds. Fish venturing further inland must factor the increased number of barriers into their journey so that they are able to time their travels accordingly.

McMillan made note of a stream paralleling that of an obstacle course – complete with fourteen waterfalls and other contributing hindrances.
When I asked him how these fish know? His response was, “genetics”.

It makes me wonder how well our hatchery fish will fare in the ‘time management’ category.

Watching Steelhead moving up river

3)  Steelhead have otoliths or “earstones” in their head between the ears and behind the fleshy part of their brain.
An otolith is solidified calcium carbonate that serves as part of the hearing and balance system in fish. This calcium carbonate is primarily derived from water and, as its host grows older, new calcium carbonate crystals form allowing trace elements of water to bind with the otolith (causing layers to develop).

All of this composition and build-up play a very important role for biologists.
From the otolith, a scientist is able to determine the age of the fish and the properties of water bodies that fish have previously occupied. In addition to being able to determine the specifics of the river system each fish has visited, the otolith plays a key role is showing how long a fish spent in both fresh and salt water. It also identifies individuals who’ve returned to freshwater to spawn more than once.

While scales also tell biologists specifics about fish age (they have rings on them similar to trees), scales can become damaged or misconfigured during spawning migration. Scales also have a tendency to reabsorb during times of weakened or decreased energy levels, thus securing analysis of the otolith as an extremely significant research tool.

Scale Sample

4)  As steelhead are anadromous rainbow trout, their spawning habits are inevitably very similar. A unique fact unknown to many is that rainbow trout have the ability to fertilize steelhead eggs and vice versa.

John McMillan (Bill’s son) is a biologist who is currently conducting a major study on such data. He specifically takes note of the amount of lipid body fat within individual fish. An interesting find is that fish who are already healthy and not in desperate need to gain body mass are more likely to remain in the freshwater, avoiding the perils of an ocean commute entirely and indefinitely.

Comparatively, a fish low in body fat is much more likely to seek saltwater where it will feed heavily until it has reached a substantial size.

High body fat content is often related to water temperatures, and cold water is a contributing factor to finding fish with higher lipid reserves.
The further down a river system one will venture, the warmer the water becomes and these fish become much more inclined to partake in anadromy (return to the ocean) as a result of lower body fat reserves.

Research has shown that male juvenile steelhead (often assumed to be resident rainbows) have a higher inclination to remain in freshwater, as they have less demand to gain bulk than the egg-bearing females. In addition to the advantages of security and fertile stream-beds, these male fish are able to spawn with the large ocean-run females and are in fact even more efficient than many of their anadromous counterparts in that they often spawn multiple times with multiple females.


5)  Steelhead are a species with an adaptivity beyond our comprehension. It is their wide array of life history choices that explain why they have been such a successful species through the years. Seeming to break all of the rules in areas of consistency, steelhead in some parts of Russia have been documented to spawn as many as ten times!

Regardless it is undeniable that, try as these fish might, their survival rate is increasingly plummeting.

Smolt to adult return rates (SAR) historically varied between 10-20%. Now, present day data shows an alarming decrease with return rates as low as 1-2% (and sometimes even lower).
Equally as disconcerting is the misconception that all steelhead return to spawn again throughout their life cycle.

While it is true that a great number of steelhead do not decay, as the Pacific Salmon do upon spawning, it is an incorrect assumption that all steelhead survive their migration route after leaving freshwater.
Contrary to public belief, the majority of post-spawned steelhead do indeed perish as they attempt a migration back to the ocean.

Weak, spent, battled and debilitated, steelhead bear the marks of exhaustion brought on by competing fish, angling pressure, reverse osmotic chemistry and biological fatigue. Their poor condition makes obstruction all the more lethal.

Male fish have a very low respawn rate as they eject sperm multiple times while spawning, resulting in severe fatigue. Females only drop eggs once, thus slightly increasing their likelihood of survival.

Additionally, the respawn rate is lower on summer-run fish as they spend so much time in the system without food and travel longer distances than winter fish.
Historically, the percentage of respawners in the northern and southern steelhead ranges fared higher than that of the central basins. In places such as Kamchatka, steelhead reached respawn rates as high as 70%, and southern ranges (like northern California) once averaged between 25-60%.
Presently, the average return spawning rate finds itself somewhere between 5-20% – with central regions like the upper Columbia tributaries ranging between 1-2% (largely in part due to the excessive damming).

All in all, it makes me wonder about my own contribution to the decreasing numbers of our steelhead stocks. Data indicates that in some systems steelhead are caught an average of 4 times during their commute (twice on their way up and twice on their way down). If the catch & release mortality rate ranges from 3-10% on a steelhead caught once, is it a relatively fair assumption that a quadruple capture might raise the mortality rate to 12-40%?
Such numbers cannot help but demand the attention of those who will listen. It’s a scary thought for a wild steelhead advocate, isn’t it?

Thanks for reading!

~April Vokey
RIO Ambassador   

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Oh My Scud – by Brian Chan

Scud Stomach Pump Sample

One common denominator of the most productive stillwater trout fisheries found in North America and other areas of the world is the presence of Freshwater Shrimp which are also referred to as scuds.   These amphipods thrive in nutrient rich, alkaline waters. Their populations can be prolific and they provide a huge source of food for trout and other species of fish. Reach down and pull out a wad of benthic plant matter and more often than not it will be teaming with scuds. Any angler that has worn neoprene waders while float tubing a scud rich lake will have witnessed hundreds of scuds clinging to the outside of their waders upon exiting the water.

A steady diet of scuds imparts a deep orange color to the flesh of trout. With such an abundant food source one would think that fishing shrimp patterns would be a favored choice of stillwater flyfishers. I’ll be the first to admit that putting a scud pattern on has often been the last pattern choice before giving up for the day. My lack of confidence in fishing this food source had been based on a couple of assumptions :
1) trout can eat scuds 365 days a year and
2) there are so many real scuds around why would the trout bother to chase after a facsimile of the real one.   I believed in the theory of offering the trout something different such as a leech, damselfly or dragonfly nymph.

Kamloops Rainbow

However, during the past couple of fishing seasons I made a concerted effort to fish scuds when the conditions made sense. I concentrated on fishing them in the early spring prior to any major aquatic insect emergences such as chironomids or mayflies and then again in the late fall which was well past any of the major insect emergences. I have been pleasantly surprised with my results. It meant that I was spending less time fishing with the strike indicator. Instead I was re-introduced to how effective sinking lines were in presenting scud patterns at various levels within the water column.

Prime scud habitat is the green plant growth that covers and grows up off the bottom of the shoal or littoral zone of the lake. Water depths varying from just a couple feet and extending out to the edge of the dropoff is prime scud real estate. Free swimming scuds are easily picked off by foraging trout. Those that use the protection of heavy plant growth or other bottom structure live a much longer life.

Scud or Shrimp Stomach Pump Sample

Scuds are not long distance swimmers. They typically dart in and out of benthic vegetation and will often gather in large clusters within matts of vegetation or under rocks or woody debris. The basic presentation technique is to cast and retrieve scud patterns right along or through the dense mats of aquatic vegetation. Continuous, but short, 2 to 4 inch long strip retrieves interspersed with the occasional pause is a very productive way to present scud patterns. This retrieve is often much faster than the real scuds movement but it makes your imitation stand out from the competition.  I like tying patterns with gold or copper bead heads which not only add a bit of flash to the fly but also allows it to sink faster in the water column . Tie the scud pattern on with a non-slip loop knot to add even more movement to the fly as it is stripped through the water.

Best Scud Pattern Fly Tying

Early spring and late fall scud fishing is often done in water less than 6 feet in depth and in many instances in water as shallow as a couple feet.   Lines ideally suited for the shallowest water include the RIO InTouch Hover and RIO Aqualux Midge Tip. For fishing water in the 4 to 6 foot depth zone I like the RIO InTouch Camolux and RIO InTouch Deep 3. The wait time before beginning the retrieve is less than 30 seconds and the continuous strip retrieve keeps the fly just off the bottom structure.

The best thing about fishing sinking lines with scuds and other sub-surface patterns is the take. Nothing can replace that hard pull on the flyline as you know that fish totally committed itself to eating your fly.

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Never Too Old or Too Windy – by Sarah Gardner

     Harkers Island

A pair of old” clients show that they’ve got the right stuff.

It’s a sad morning for me, horrible weather has caused me to cancel the last three days of a six-day trip with a pair of beloved clients. Michael Nowak and his stepfather Lou are among my oldest clients… literally. Well, Lou is, anyway. When the two first started fishing with me, Lou was already in his sixties. Continue reading

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RIO’s InTouch Skagit MOW Tips Bring the Ultimate in Sink Tip Versatility

InTouch_Skagit_MOW_TipsIDAHO FALLS, IDAHO (November 2, 2015) – RIO continues to expand the use of its ConnectCore technology by introducing it to the popular Skagit MOW and iMOW Tips. Offering anglers a multitude of options in lines, leaders, tippets, and more, RIO Products continues to create products for any anglers’ needs in nearly any fishing scenario. Continue reading

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Make Your Fly Lines Work For You: Why the Right Line Matters – by Nick Tenyor

Fly Fishing River

After guiding, working, and living in a fly shop for close to ten years-you come to realize some absolute truths about fly-fishing. You learn that the quality of your experiences on the water matter more than the number of fish brought to hand, the importance of taking a break to enjoy a sandwich and cold drink on the bank, and that your choice in fly line(s) is absolutely critical to make sure that your fishing goes smoothly and effortlessly. Continue reading

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Swinging for Steelhead – Adapting to the conditions – by Jason Hartwick

Fly Caught Wild Steelhead
Swinging flies for steelhead is not always easy but in my honest opinion, it is the most enjoyable way to catch these fish. They don’t always come easy and much of the time we have to work hard for our fish. Being able to adapt to the conditions certainly can increase your odds. Continue reading

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