Category Archives: Steelhead Articles

How the Steelhead Gene Bank Program Works (part 3 of 3)

Steelhead Gene Bank by Debbie Kay

Gene Bank Streams in Washington State are the Nisqually and Elwha Rivers. They have been officially named to Washington’s new Steelhead Gene Bank program.  These streams will no longer take any stocked hatchery fish, and measures will be taken to remove hatchery fish and to better preserve the area for wild fish.  These two streams are just the beginning of a program designed to try and help these threatened fish to survive and replenish in the state’s Puget Lowlands.

Steelhead in Washington State

Steelhead are a native, sea-run subspecies of rainbow trout, or Oncorhynchus mykiss.  Steelhead are one of the species known to survive multiple spawns, unlike West Coast salmon.  They have two runs, a summer run and a winter run.  Summer runs are typically in the Puget Sound lowlands, while winter runs are closer to the Pacific Ocean.  The fish emerge from the gravel and rear in freshwater from two to four years, depending on the amount of food and cool water available.  The longer that the fish rear, the higher survival rate they tend to have. Returning steelhead spawn between 8 and 11 pounds, and they can grow to sizes up to 40lbs.

The Concern with Hatchery Steelhead

Rainbows are one of the original hatchery fish, with successful stocking programs dating back to the 1800’s.  This made a switch to steelhead a natural and logical choice. Local steelhead stocking programs are known to take the fish directly from a spawn, trying to preserve the in-stream gene bank. They have been successful in upping raw numbers in streams, but this has not slowed population decline for wild fish.  A 2009 study from Oregon State showed some of the problems with hatchery steelhead.  In the wild, a hatchery fish is not just unconditioned for life in the wild, it is actually genetically less likely to survive.  A fish born in the wild from two hatchery parents has only a 37% chance of survival compared to a wild fish.  A fish with one wild parent has only an 80% chance of survival.  This reduced survival rate was proven to pass on to the next generation, and was assumed to continue for several more generations as well.  For a fish that is struggling already due to habitat concerns, to put breeding fish into the system that are known to reduce the chance of survival for the population as a whole, while taking food resources from those who need it was considered to be contributing to the extinction of wild steelhead strains.

How the Steelhead Gene Bank Program Works

There are three designated areas in the Puget Sound lowlands that are designated for steelhead recovery plans, like the gene bank streams.  Within each, streams will be chosen where hatchery fish will no longer be added.  Fishing will be encouraged for hatchery fish with mandatory take, and release-only for wild fish.  No winter fishing (during the winter run) will be allowed.  The Nisqually and Elwha were chosen for the massive restoration efforts on behalf of both streams, including the dam removal in the Elwha river, and the moratorium on hatchery steelhead in the Nisqually dating back to 1982.  More streams will be given the Steelhead Gene Bank classification moving forward.

See Part One and Part Two

Five Reasons Steelhead Numbers Dwindling (part 2 of 3)


Steelhead Numbers Dwindling By Debbie Kay

The sea-run rainbow trout known as the steelhead has a problem.  Steelhead numbers dwindling though declines have slowed their rate, the numbers continue to slip.  There are half a dozen different unique steelhead populations. Steelhead numbers dwindling, and despite the things that are being done to save their cousins the salmon, none of them seem to be working well for these native fish.   Steelhead populations declines have slowed their rate, but numbers continue to slip.  There are half a dozen different unique steelhead populations that are gaining attention for their threatened status, and NOAA is in the process of developing recovery plans for many of these regions.  Though some of the individual regions will have unique reasons for population declines, there are also a number of reasons that all regions have in common.  Here is a look at five top reasons that steelhead are disappearing:


Many of the most threatened steelhead populations are on waterways with one or more dams.  Fish passage designs are not built into older dams, and only capture a portion of the population in newer dams. Dammed waters often cut off hundreds of miles of breeding grounds for large populations of anadromous fish, and leave thousands to millions of fish trying to get upstream to spawn without success.


Drought years are rough on fish who count on headwater streams for their rearing grounds.  Low water reduces the available area for fish to live, hurts streamside plants which provide food through their leaf litter and reduces available stream insects.  This can cause a drop in the number of fish returning to sea after their time in fresh water.

Climate Change

Increased water temperatures, drought cycles, disappearing snowpack from snow-fed streams and ocean acidification all play a toll on these fish in different ways.  Steelhead need cool water because they require high levels of oxygen to survive, and water loses oxygen as it is heated.  Ocean acidification can prevent the survival of plankton because it can dissolve their shells.  This is the base food for all ocean life, and can cause drastic drops in population up the entire food chain.

Land Use Choices

Shade, clear water without sedimentation and access to leafy vegetation are all needed for steelhead populations to thrive.  However, urban and residential development, timber harvest and agricultural practices that are done too close to streams can take a large toll on the in-stream fish habitat.  Buffers are prescribed for each of the land use types, but many believe that they are currently not sufficient to protect steelhead, particularly with some of the loopholes in the rules that exist.  In addition, there is a lot of unpermitted harvest of streamside vegetation and in-stream modifications with heavy equipment that can cause damage to fish habitat by well-meaning but uninformed landowners.


Hatcheries have long been the main solution proposed for steelhead and salmon populations.  While they have made it possible to have a continued recreational (and sometimes commercial) population of salmon and steelhead, the genetics of a hatchery group are significantly less varied than their fully wild counterparts.  In the case of steelhead, the genes of hatchery fish appear to be somewhat compromised, as they show a reduced rate of survival even one generation after being raised in a hatchery.   As this is becoming better understood, hatchery steelhead are being re-thought as a recovery technique, and some stocked steelhead are genetically modified to be triploid or otherwise sterile, to avoid depressing the wild populations.

NOAA’s recovery plans, to be successful, will need to address all of these puzzle pieces in the steelhead numbers dwindling conundrum.  As they continue to move forward with recommendations, the help of land use and fishing groups have become a very important part in helping to bring this popular game fish back to the West Coast streams.

See Part One and Part Three


Steelhead Fishing, An Introduction (Part 1 of 3)

Steelhead Fishing by Debbie Kay

The fabled Northwest was known for its vast natural resources, and was a staging ground for those headed to California or Alaska to seek gold when settlers rushed across in the mid-1800’s searching for riches.  Today, one of its most iconic riches is not gold, but silver.  The sea-run subspecies of the rainbow trout, Oncorhyncus mykiss, continues to be a treasure for ecologists and sport fishermen alike.

About Steelhead

Steelhead are sea-run salmonids that are distributed up and down the West Coast of the US.  There are many unique subspecies of these fish as there are streams, as each fish is conditioned to return to its birth waters to spawn.  Unlike salmon, which have a similar life cycle, steelhead survive after spawning and can return to their stream homes year after year between their sexual maturity at age 2 or 3 (and occasionally four) to the end of their lifespan around age 11.   The older, larger fish can reach 45 inches and 55 lbs, though they average between 8 and 11 lbs.

Steelhead come in two different populations with slightly different spawn strategies, summer steelhead and winter steelhead.  A stream may have one or both kinds of populations in their waters.  Winter steelhead tends to show up around the first of December and are already sexually mature.  They spawn soon afterward, in late summer/early spring.  Summer steelhead can begin to migrate to their birth streams as early as May and as late as November.  They will spend much longer in fresh water before spawning, and will undergo their entire spawn transformation while in fresh water.  They will then return to sea, leaving their eggs in gravel beds to hatch on their own.  As eggs hatch, they will spend between one and three years in fresh water before returning to sea for their first spawn.  They will then spend one to four years at sea before spawning, earning them the names 1-salt, 2-salt, 3-salt, etc.  The larger their salt number, the bigger their typical size.

Steelhead Fishing

Steelhead are typically fly-fished for in rivers or along beaches at the mouth of their streams.   Flies can be presented downstream on a floating or sinking line, though some instead will swear by some of the nymphing methods popular in trout fishing.  They are most commonly fished for during winter runs, which draw the most hardcore fishermen.  Though the Northwest weather is temperate, flashy storms and rainy days can mean rivers that go from clear to rushing and muddy within a few hours, and that you need good rain wear and water-wicking clothes to stay comfortable. Steelhead run in groups, which often means a lot of waiting with pockets of great steelhead fishing throughout a day.  Often, a good day can mean a single large snag.  Attractor patterns are the most popular choice for standard steelhead flies, though nymph and egg patterns are also used.

Steelhead fishing is a place where many people can converge on the same pools, and it is important to remember the proper fishing etiquette when sharing a pool.  Start upstream, follow to the bottom of the pool, and then head on shore to the top once again.   This allows everyone a chance at the pool, and is easier on the habitat (and the tempers of other fishermen who know the rules) than many fishers in the same pool not moving for hours.

The populations of steelhead are considered threatened in many waters along the West Coast.  Because of this, the rules regarding steelhead fishing vary in different areas.  Some streams will have rules that allow catch and release only.  Others will allow take of stocked hatchery fish.  Some streams who are trying to remove hatchery populations in favor of hardier, better-surviving wild stocks are encouraging take of hatchery fish to try and help encourage repopulation.  The threats to the species are many fold, and come at every stage in their life cycle.  The strategies to save them are also very different depending on where they live.  The details of the problems and proposed solutions will be addressed in a follow-up article in this series on steelhead fishing.

See Part Two and Part Three




Nighttime Steelheading: Night Fishing Part 1

Warm Summer Nights are Great for Catching Nocturnal Steelhead

(Nighttime Steelheading is Part 1 of the Nighttime Fishing Series)

By Terry Otto

One of the best things about nighttime steelheading is that you leave the daytime crowds behind.  I was sharing the bank with just two other fishermen in a spot that was jacked with fishermen during the day.  I cast a glow in the dark corky tipped with a sand shrimp, into the clear water of the rifle.  I didn’t have to wait long. Continue reading Nighttime Steelheading: Night Fishing Part 1

Once Best: Skagit River Steelhead Fishing Closed Forever


By Larry Dunbar

OK forever is a long time, but we will address that later.

Natural influences have forced a bold experiment. The Washington Dept Fish and Wildlife (WDFW), Seattle City Light and 3 separate local tribes joined together and created a huge Skagit River steelhead conservation project. They have closed the 60 year old Marblemount steelhead hatchery. That’s 250,000 – 500,000 smolts not being released into the river each year. Continue reading Once Best: Skagit River Steelhead Fishing Closed Forever