Good news! Steelhead are on the way

FRANK ARMENDARIZ/THE CHRONICLEWinter steelhead (note the jawline on this female) start showing up in most of Oregon’s coastal rivers around Thanksgiving.

The silver (or chrome) lining of November is that winter steelhead will soon be in most rivers all along the Oregon coast. Steelheads actually range and are native to rivers from Southern California to Alaska’s southeast coast. Over the next couple of Anglers Logs I will, exclusively be talking steelhead. This week about the fish itself, steelhead habitat, range and some important generalities about the steelhead’s habits once they reach their home stream or river. 

So, what is a steelhead? Well, a steelhead is essentially a rainbow trout that migrates to the ocean and becomes “anadromous”. The Steelhead, native to the west coast of North America, have evolved two distinct varieties. A summer run that starts about May each year and winter run that generally kicks off in late November. In rivers blessed with the habitat, there are times of the year that both versions, summer and winter steelhead are in the river at the same time. Which is truly a real gift of Mother Nature to steelheaders, who need all the help they can muster because at times the fish can be somewhat elusive.

Maybe the most prolific steelhead river in the world is the Columbia and its many steelhead-bearing tributaries that produce hundreds of thousands of steelheads each year. The upper tributaries are known for their runs of summer fish and in lower basin tributaries where winter steelhead are far more common. In addition to the Columbia, the Wilson, Siletz, Umpqua and Rogue rivers all have runs of both summer and winter steelhead. But in Oregon’s smaller coastal rivers, without exception winter steelhead are far more common than “summers” and winter steelhead is the primary subject of the next couple Logs. 

In a life span that can last ten or more years, steelhead unlike their anadromous brother the salmon who always die after a single spawning run, a steelhead can return to its home stream to spawn two or three times. It is part of a somewhat complicated life cycle strategy that steelheads have developed over eons that allows the fish to live longer in the river as juveniles, becoming a resident trout. Or stay out at sea as a steelhead and delay a spawning cycle for a couple of years or more. 

Another part of this strategy is that not every steelhead offspring migrates to the sea, some stay in the river as trout retaining the genetics unique to every river habitat where steelhead are found. Steelhead offspring that grow to become resident male trout can actually spawn with ocean run females, producing more steelhead. And resident trout, males and females, from steelhead parents can actually produce ocean going offspring. It is a type of resiliency not common to many fish species.

The “resilience“ of steelhead has been observed by fisheries biologists for decades and that resilience was never more evident as seen in the aftermath of the catastrophic volcanic event that blew the top off of Mt. Saint Helens in 1980. The explosion heard hundreds of miles away, sent half the mountain, in what is the largest landslide in human history crashing into Spirit Lake. Forcing a massive flood of water, volcanic ash and debris to rush down the Toutle River canyon. The catastrophic event wiped away hundreds of homes and a number of communities along the way. A lower Columbia River basin tributary, the reputation of the Tuttle River as home to strong runs of winter steelhead and salmon was thought to be lost as forever. But only two years after the eruption, spawning steelheads were found just downstream from a dam that had been built to contain and settle ash sediments from the mountain’s spring runoffs. All native fish, in a habitat far from healed that according to red counts now average about 400 returnees each winter. The sediment dam, forty years later is still in place and blocks miles of the South Toutle to migrate fish but catch and release fish is now possible on the north fork. 

The ability to live past several spawning cycles, worked in the steelhead’s flavor and the numbers are expected to grow as the habitat on the Toutle continues to recover. The eruption also showed us the limits of the fish’s habitat requirements and that the loss of habitat is the number one limitation in sustaining and recovering wild stocks in northwest rivers and streams. That has been impacted by human activities and development on the banks. But unlike salmon that have a single chance to reproduce, steelhead can return to their native river to spawn multiple times in their life, when conditions are favorable, another indication of the steelhead’s resiliency.

Along the central Oregon coast we have a number of rivers with both hatchery and wild steelhead. On a few rivers, we have what are referred to as “broodstock” steelhead. The numbers released are limited but broodstock steelhead are the offspring of a wild steelhead and a hatchery steelhead. Broodstock and hatchery raised steelhead all have a clipped adipose fin but broodstock fish tend to bite better and generally grow larger than their hatchery kin. The part about broodstock being better biting fish is a result of their wild genetics that taught them to hunt for their food from fingerlings. Rather than waiting for a meal to be spread by machine in a hatchery toff. 

River gravel plays a big part in the life of a steelhead. Adult fish spawn in gravel, juvenile fish are nurtured in the river gravel river beds and adult fish returning from the ocean will literally move up river in a hopscotch manor from gravel bed to gravel bed. Until they find the exact gravel bed where their parents came together in the cycle of life that produced them. This tendency to favor a gravel river bed under them becomes incredibly apparent if you regularly fish a river like the Umpqua. That has miles of bedrock punctuated with a series of gravel beds every quarter mile or so as you work your way up or down the river. In winter flows it’s difficult to discern the gravel bars but on a river like the Umpqua experience or luck could lead to a good day of steelheading. 

On every steelhead river you want to find water that is moving along at a fast to medium walking pace and ideally about two to four feet deep. In a low river with angler pressure steelhead seek the cover of deep river holes but that is not their preferred holding water. They are trout at heart and act more like trout when they find conditions to their liking. In the low light of sunrise, undisturbed and even in low water you will often see them finning in the river tailouts. Later in the morning without the cover of darkness steelhead settle into the deeper parts of the run. 

The time to fish for steelhead is after a rain storm on falling river levels. A couple of other things about steelhead is they don’t meander in the bays like salmon do but move quickly into the river.

It takes a couple of big rain falls to set the stage for a season that will last into spring. In most years we will see the first of the winter steelhead runs arrive around Thanksgiving. Steelhead are my favorite species of fish to fish for, I caught my first one in 1973 out of the Klamath River in California and I have been addicted to the pursuit ever since. In the next Anglers Log I will be talking about technique, location and I will share specific info about the ideal conditions to fish for steelhead in easily accessible coastal steelhead rivers. 

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