Steelhead are rad. Sorry to have to go to the vault and bust out a 1980’s adjective there, but it really does fit, doesn’t it?
Everything about them is cool: The way they crush a plug or mash a swung fly. Their ability to cartwheel 3 feet out of the water and then burn 50 yards of line in a nanosecond. Their incomparable beauty. The incredible places they live.
Pure and simple steelhead are indeed… rad.
While I love my kings and coho and stripers and browns and roosters, if I had to pick one fish to chase for the rest of eternity – it would be the steelhead without hesitation. And I’m sure many of you out in FishwithJD Land feel the same way. So let’s take a look at some interesting factoids concerning our favorite fish…
So, where do they go in the ocean?
Precious little is known about their wanderings in the sea. While steelies eat some of the same prey items that salmon do, they obviously don’t hang around much with them – otherwise we’d catch a lot more steelies while hunting kings and coho.
Back in the early 1990’s when California’s offshore salmon fishing was going gangbusters, I asked a deckhand on one of the most popular charter boats out of San Francisco if they ever caught any steelhead during the summer season.
He said that they caught one… once. Back in those days, the boats would load up with 30 anglers and get limits (2 per rod) of kings every day…and sometimes twice a day… all summer long. Do the math: that’s a lot of kings and not so many trout!
I also have a couple commercial fishermen buddies who echo the same story. In all their thousands of hours out on the briny blue, they’ve caught exactly one steelhead. Strangely enough, it was taken about 26 miles off the northwestern corner of California on a big plug being trolled for tuna (see photo above).
What we do know is steelhead seem to roam great distances in the saltchuck. According to NOAA, a steelhead tagged south of Kiska Island in Alaska’s western Aleutian Island chain, was recovered about six months and 2,200 miles later in Washington State’s Wynoochee River.
Info I received from the University of Washington tells the story of a Steelie released from a hatchery in Idaho that swam to the center of the Gulf of Alaska, a distance of about 890 nautical miles, in only two months.
Another from Oregon’s Alsea River hatchery was caught south of Kodiak Island, Alaska five months later after swimming at least 1,200 miles.
Far from the green river valleys and fog-shrouded redwoods where we typically think of steelhead living, once there were actually spawning populations of steelhead in…get this…Mexico!
Those fish, of course, are all gone now, but what a cool combo trip you could have put together back in the day – a little steelhead fishing in the morning, followed by some Rooster fish off the beach and maybe cap off the day with some wahoo and dorado.
Those were the days!
Speaking of Southern Steelhead, there are still a few stragglers each season in Malibu Creek near Los Angeles. In the 1950’s, the Los Angeles River used to produce good steelhead fishing and the nearby Ventura River had an annual run of around 4,000 adults prior to the construction of Matilija Dam in 1948.
Now of course steelhead in the L.A. River are nothing more than an April Fool’s gag and all other southern populations are either extinct or residing on the Endangered Species List.
Fun with fecundity
Four thousand, nine hundred and twenty three. That’s the average number of eggs a female steelhead carries in her cargo bay. That being said, can anyone please explain to me why it is still legal to keep wild steelhead in some places??
Not my first rodeo, cowboy!
Steelhead are unique in that they don’t necessarily die after spawning. While many of them succumb to the rigors of the journey, a percentage of fish beat the odds and return to their natal streams more than once.
In Alaska, where there are generally shorter steelhead drainages with fewer man-made diversions and habitat infringements, the incidence of repeat spawning can be significantly higher. The rate can be from 11% to 38% with an average between 25% to 33% (Brookover and Harding 2003). On the Situk River in 1994, 907 steelhead were captured and sampled for age and length and 51% of them were found to be repeat spawners (Johnson 1996).
Yep, you heard that right steelhead exsist in the Atlantic. There’s a nice population of sea-run rainbows in the Rio Santa Cruz in southern Patagonia. The steelies that run right-to-left up the Santa Cruz are not native to South America and, allegedly originated from fish transplanted from the McCloud River (a tributary to the Sacramento) in Northern California around the turn of the century.
Methinks a trip down there may be in order…just to see how our friends are faring on the “wrong” coast!
We all know steelhead are fast, but did you know that they can hit bust speeds of 26 feet per second? Think about that one for a minute – 26 feet per second is pretty impressive.
If you hook a fish right at the transom of your jet sled, it could be several feet off your bow in the blink of an eye!
If you do the math, a steelhead traveling at that rate for an extended period of time (they can’t), could travel a mile in about 3½ minutes.
So, the next time you’re left there dazed and confused on the river bank, with a blistered thumb and a limp line, you’ll have a better idea of what just happened to ya…
For more steelhead info, check out the Steelhead Techniques page here.