Aiming for the bright light above, the little guy — we’ll call him “Dan” — struggled through the pile of gravel where his mother had buried him several weeks before.
As he reached the top of the stones, Dan poked his tiny little head into the light, and without warning, he was rudely greeted by a swift current.
The force of the water swept him out of the nest and down stream several feet, where he was slammed broadside into a stone.
Fighting to regain his equilibrium, Dan finally found a soft spot in the creek’s rushing flow near the shore and righted himself. When he finally had a chance to survey his new surroundings, the miniature fish noticed he was not alone.
Chaotic clouds of other freshly hatched steelhead milled about him in the calm eddy.
Without warning, there was an immense explosion just to Dan’s right, and when the bubbles dissipated, he noticed that two of his cousins had vanished — plucked from the water by the snapping bill of a belted Kingfisher and swallowed whole. The creek was not a safe place and Dan’s survival instincts told him to dash for cover.
Over the next month, Dan spent the majority of his time hiding under overhanging trees and next to boulders.
Soon, though, he absorbed the egg sack that he was born with and had to start searching out food for himself. He started to sample every little morsel that drifted past his lair and eventually learned to distinguish the nymphs and drowned insects from the twigs and small pieces of vegetation that drifted by in the current.
Aside from narrowly escaping the horrible jaws of a ravenous 12-inch squawfish, and a near miss by a feeding egret, Dan’s first summer in the creek passed without incidence.
As the weeks wore on, he continued to feed and grow, and by the following spring, he was as long as the squawfish that had tried to devour him the year prior.
Once the creek started to swell with spring run-off, Dan felt a strong urge to swim downstream. He swam into the main river and then down past irrigation pumps that nearly sucked him into oblivion; past storm drains dumping noxious goo into the water and under docks and bridges.
Dan continued down through boiling rapids and across long stretches of slow water. At every turn, danger lurked.
One day, Dan lost the tip of his tail during a harrowing escape from a feeding river otter. Another, he was the only fish out of a school of young steelhead to survive an ambush by a pod of rampaging striped bass.
Already, the hundreds of thousands of baby steelies that had been born alongside Dan had dwindled down to around 20,000 fish. After getting lost in a side canal for several days, Dan finally got back into the main river.
He continued on and eventually noticed that the water tasted salty. He rested in the brackish water of the estuary for a few days to get acclimated to his new environment and then bolted bravely into the sea.
Once in saltwater, Dan quickly added several pounds to his frame by gorging on protein-rich food like squid, krill and anchovies. Unlike the river from which had come, the open ocean seemed bottomless and had no overhanging brush or boulders to provide cover.
Instead, Dan’s body coloration changed. Camouflage was the name of the game then. His black-spotted green back, crimson sides, and crème belly underwent a rapid transformation.
Soon, his spots had all but disappeared and his back was a deep blue—almost —black—color that was nearly impossible for predators looking down into the dark waters from above to detect.
His belly and sides changed to a silvery-white color that made Dan virtually invisible to any hungry beast looking up towards the bright surface at him.
Ocean life was monotonous. Each day, Dan and his small school swam many miles in pursuit of food and nearly every day they had an encounter with something unfriendly.
Sea lions were a constant problem whenever they were within 25 miles of the shore, and one morning, Dan watched as a school of about 1,000 salmon were scooped up by a fisherman’s net.
As the steelhead swam north, orcas often gave them a good scare and off Alaska, porbeagle sharks, a cousin of the great white, took their toll.
After two years of roaming the Pacific, Dan and his group of steelhead, now numbering at just a few thousand, headed for home. Though they had wandered over two thousand miles from the river in which they were born, the steelhead easily found the entrance to their natal stream.
Unfortunately, the water level was very low and the river mouth was unnavigable, choked with sand. Dan and his clan, now all weighing 8 to 15 pounds apiece, waited nervously in the saltwater near the mouth of the river.
Day after day they waited for the river to rise, but no rain fell. The fish became extremely agitated and started to nip at each other’s fins.
Finally, the smell of fresh water filled their senses and the fish poured into the river in an urgent rush.
The steelhead suffered heavy losses as sea lions pummeled them from all sides. They blitzed through the slower estuarine portion of the river and then began to slow down as the gradient increased and the sea lions thinned out.
The rapids that Dan had slid so easily through on his trek downriver three years prior where much more daunting now.
It took every ounce of energy he had to swim the 60 miles of foaming rapids to the headwaters of the river. Along the way, several of his relatives expired due to exhaustion and a few others were pulled from the water when they mistook a fisherman’s hook for a meal.
Finally, Dan reached the clean gravels of a small tributary creek where he had been born. He was exhausted and his once mighty body was ragged.
Still, Dan was strong enough to fight off several smaller males and then took up a position next to a 12-pund henfish that had just dug a nest. She deposited her eggs in the redd and he covered them in milt.
Steelie Dan had come home.