The airborne silver fish against the dark green background of the cedar trees was an awesome sight. This was the fourth jump for the acrobatic trout with no sign of tiring. Luckily my adversary had chosen the middle of the river to fight the battle because I don’t think I could have stopped it or steered the fish clear of the jumble of logs just downstream. Finally the runs became shorter and the rainbow just rolled on the surface instead of leaping free of the river.
I got below the fish and was soon staring at a perfect 10-pound specimen of a very tired lake run rainbow. The dark greenish gray back sharply gave way to mint silver sides and a pure white belly. There were only a sparse number of black spots and all the fins were intact and perfectly formed. Sounds like the description of a wild steelhead, right? Well, there were no mountains in sight, the Pacific Ocean was more than 2,000 miles away, and there were no rocks or even gravel in the river. I was fishing on our lower Betsie River.
Many Pacific Northwest anglers hold the opinion that the only true steelhead grow to adulthood in the Pacific Ocean. If these anadromous rainbows don’t migrate to salt water and back they can’t really be steelhead. Well, we are going to describe some of similarities and differences of anadromous rainbows in the Great Lakes and Pacific Northwest and will let you be the judge.
While a broad generalization, the steelhead that I, and my partners, have caught in Washington and Oregon seemed a bit longer and slimmer than their lower Great Lakes brethren. They more closely resemble Lake Superior steelhead. This may mean that food is a bit harder to come by in the ocean and Lake Superior than the other Great Lakes although that is changing in the lower Great Lakes with the decrease in forage fish. Another answer might be that steelhead in the ocean have to dodge lots of natural predators while nothing eats Great Lakes steelhead after they’ve reached three or four pounds except humans in large boats. This is further substantiated by the many studies showing much better survival of smolts to sheds too. In most tributaries to the lower four Great Lakes the young steelhead grow to smolting size in two years. Many of the rivers are fairly rich in nutrients, have stable flows, and have relatively low gradients with plenty of in stream cover. This results in ideal rearing habitat for the rainbow parr. Conversely, the majority of the steelhead rivers in the Northwest, especially the coastal streams, are lacking in nutrients and have very unstable flow regimes. Very low water in the summer and a paucity of aquatic invertebrates results in the young rainbows needing three years to become smolts. Interestingly a similar situation exists in the Great Lakes. Freestone streams flowing into Lake Superior are typically low in nutrients and have high gradients. The result again is the need for three years in the river before smolting.
Another difference between east and west is the return trip for the adult steelhead. Again, on average, western steelhead must negotiate much faster water with many rapids and falls and travel longer distances. So does this tougher life make them a different fish, a tougher fish? And does the easier life make the Great Lakes anadromous rainbow trout just a steelhead wannabe?
The ancestors for Michigan’s winter steelhead came from California’s McCloud River in the 1880s. Wild strains have evolved from these early transplants in many Michigan rivers. These fish have survived for over 100 years and have endured the sea lamprey invasion that resulted in the virtual extinction of lake trout in all of the Great Lakes except Lake Superior.
Today Michigan still depends on wild fish in the Little Manistee River to supply eggs and milt for all of their hatchery winter steelhead. Has this long period and the many generations of wild steelhead resulted in a current Great Lakes strain that is a lot different than ocean run steelhead? Probably no way to answer this question unless we plant Little Manistee strain steelhead smolts in a coastal river and see how they do compared to West Coast strains.
Do the rigors of life in the Pacific Northwest rivers and the ocean result in bigger and stronger steelhead than are found in the Great Lakes? Looking at my own catch records the average sizes between the Great Lakes and Washington, Oregon, and Alaska are very similar. As would be expected the Skeena River system steelies average much larger than either of these groups and are not included in the comparison. Despite the similarity in average size of the steelhead in the east and west I definitely think that your chance for a really big steelhead is better in the Northwest. Fish in the upper teens and low twenties are more common in the west. This is obvious in my fishing records with one 20 pound fish out of a total of about 200 landed in Washington and Oregon while only three 20+ pound fish have come to net out of almost 8000 steelies caught in the Great Lakes tributaries.
While 30 pounders are very rare but possible in the Northwest we have yet to reach that size in the Great Lakes. The reason for potentially larger fish in the West may be related to the longevity of the fish or to the fact that steelhead in the ocean keep growing in the winter while the winter water temperatures in the 30s cause growth to come to a near standstill for several months in the Great Lakes.
One difference between east and west steelhead that I have noted many times is how they act after you have landed them. Great Lakes’ steelhead are usually pretty calm and docile making them easy to unhook and release. On the other hand West Coast steelhead keep trying to get away after you have pulled them on their side in the shallows. On one of my early trips to Oregon my partner Bill Shake landed a small but very bright hen. Three times Bill kneeled and cradled the six pound fish for a photo and three times the fish jumped out of his hands and back into the shallow water at the edge of the river. Finally we got the shot on the fourth try. Another time I was trying to get a close-up of a steelhead that had survived a large seal bite wound. I thought the fish was calm in the shallow water but before I could snap the shutter it was gone.
A question that always comes up is which fish fights harder? The commonly held belief is that ocean run fish fight harder than the Great Lakes steelhead. I think this stems from the fact that the only experience that many West Coast anglers have had with Great Lake’s fish is in the spring when they are spawning or soon will be and tend to fight relatively poorly.
With my many seasons of experience I have come to the conclusion that there is not a lot of difference in fighting ability between ocean and lake run fish when compared under similar situations. Nearness to spawning seems to be one of the biggest factors on how well these fish battle. Once they have converted a lot of their energy reserves into eggs and milt and are now laden with these sex products it stands to reason that they will not be able to fight the rod as well as they could if they were fresh from the ocean or lake and many months away from spawning. Water temperature also plays a role with the upper 40s to the upper 50s seeming to bring out the best in them. Conversely very cold water temperatures in the low to mid 30s and warm water in the upper 60s can really slow them down. In addition, length of time in the river seems to have an effect. In general, the longer that they are in the river the less likely they will put up a spectacular battle.
Two years ago I wrote in these pages that I thought that early fall running rainbows in the Great Lakes were the toughest steelhead. Water temperatures are usually in the upper 40s to mid 50s and these fish are six months away from spawning. Comparable fish in the West would be fresh from the ocean summer steelhead in streams with similar water temperatures.
One must keep in mind that the above statements on the steelhead’s fighting ability are generalizations. Individual fish may be a long ways from the norm. Several years ago I was fishing an Oregon coastal stream in February. The water was a bit high making the relatively small stream hard to wade. I hooked a steelhead in a tailout and after one head shake it ripped out of the pool and into the mild rapids below. I tried to follow for a ways but soon the water was just too deep and fast. Twice the steelie nearly emptied my spool on strong runs and each time my partner encouragingly said, “You’re going to lose that fish.” Despite the fact that I had 17 pound test on my reel and a fairly stiff rod I was just a spectator for about 15 minutes. Finally the reel began to fill back up with line and soon the big buck was at my feet. Expecting it to be mint fresh from the ocean I was surprised to see a red sided buck lying there in the failing late afternoon light. When I picked up the fish for a picture, milt dripped steadily from its vent. This fish had already been spawning yet still had outstanding stamina. It probably also helped that with my spinner in the corner of his jaw I was battling the big steelhead about five inches away from the end of it, thus giving it some extra leverage.
Similarly in Michigan I watched one of my angling class students that was new to steelheading nonchalantly land a bright fish rather easily and wonder what the big deal was. His next hook-up to a dark fish results in a screaming run, high arcing leap, and then he ends up standing there with his mouth agape, the rod standing straight up, and the limp line minus its terminal tackle trailing in the water.
Every steelhead is an individual and there will always be surprises and exceptions in how they battle. East or west most anadromous rainbows are good fighters and often they are spectacular. Whether you believe that lake run rainbow trout are steelhead or not, Oncorhynchus mykiss is a great fish in the Great Lakes and the Pacific Northwest. Revere this special salmonid and release wild fish in both regions for better fishing now and in the future.