Monster Mystery Rainbow Trout of Clearwater River
One thing is certain. Anglers have been pulling huge rainbow trout from the North Fork of Idaho’s Clearwater River, even fish that easily smash the 20 pound state record for rainbow trout. But none have counted — mainly because any trout over 20 inches has to be released — and because no one seems completely certain just what these fish are.
A rainbow trout is a rainbow trout, right? Maybe, except when it’s a steelhead, a hatchery triploid, a native rainbow, or a Kamloops – all of which are possibilities in the Clearwater — or maybe even something else.
To confuse you further, the Idaho Department of Fish and Game considers any rainbow trout over 20 inches in that portion of the Clearwater River to be a “steelhead”, and they must be released unless the fish has a clipped adipose fin, indicating that it’s a hatchery fish. Snake River Basin steelhead are currently listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.
That being said, no one believes that the monster fish emerging from the Clearwater are steelhead, in part because of their obese, distorted appearance.
Still, don’t try to keep one.
In January of this year, Larry Warren of Orofino, Idaho caught a 28 pounder. He and his friend weighed it on their scale, photographed and released it. But the state will also only confirm a record if the catch is weighed on a certified scale – typically in a butcher shop – and witnessed by at least two people in addition to the angler.
So it is impossible to satisfy state requirements given that the fish must be released. Idaho also keeps separate records for steelhead, rainbow trout, and Kamloops trout. The Kamloops is a sub-species of rainbow native to British Columbia and known for being outsized. The Idaho record is a 37 pounder caught in 1947. Kamloops in appearance can look similar to the Clearwater fish, with comparatively small heads and massive bodies.
Idaho DFG plants Kamloop trout in Dworshak Reservoir, some of which may flush through the dam into the Clearwater River below. In the past fertile Kamloops were stocked as well. More recently all stocked trout are sterile “triploids”.
A triploid is a fish produced by treating eggs with heat and pressure. The process creates fish that are sterile, which means they can be planted without fear they will reproduce and crowd out native fish, or compromise the genetics of the native fish population.
It also means that – just like a steer – a sterile fish will not expend energy on reproductive issues, enabling it to grow larger and faster.
Google “triploid trout” and you will find photographs of obese, out-sized trout, much like the Clearwater fish.
Confused yet? That’s not all.
The Clearwater River flows through the Nez Perce indian reservation. State fishing regulations do not apply to the Nez Perce on their reservation. In 2013 a Nez Perce, Tui Moliga, caught a 28 pound, 9 ounce fish, which he kept and took to a Fish and Game official.
A new state record? Not so fast. The Idaho DFG ruled that while Moliga keeping the fish was completely legal under tribal rules, it could not be counted as a record because it was not caught in compliance with “State of Idaho” fishing rules, not having been caught in “public waters” (a tribal fishing license is required, not a state license). The DFG suggested it could serve as a tribal record however.
DFG employees claim – based on markings on the fish in earlier photographs– that Moliga’s fish has been caught and released three times previously..
In any event, it was not initially clear to DFG officials that the fish was a rainbow – it was suspected that it might be a Kamloops, specifically – and DFG Regional Fisheries Manager took a fin clip for DNA analysis.
Are These Rainbow Trout? The verdict?
“The rainbow trout in the Clearwater are of hatchery origin, triploid and stocked in Dworshak Reservoir some time in the past,” according to a DFG spokesman.
The DFG attributes the obese appearance and outsize nature of the trout to their gorging on abundant kokanee passing through Dworshak Dam, optimum water temperatures, and the fact that triploids, as mentioned above, put more energy into body mass than reproduction.
The DFG also pointed out that most hatchery fish come from many different genetic strains (hybrids) of inland and coastal stocks of rainbow trout – including possibly Kamloops.
So what can we be absolutely sure of? Well, that there are some awfully big rainbow trout in Idaho’s Clearwater river. And if you land one, even a potential state record, you’re just gonna have to throw it back.