Can you tell if the steelhead you just caught is a wild fish or of hatchery origin?
It’s a question I get asked all the time… “How can I tell the difference?”
It’s important information because in many places, it’s legal to only to keep hatchery steelhead. In other words, wild fish must be released.
And, honestly, even in the handful of places where a wild steelhead can be retained, they should be released voluntarily anyway. There simply aren’t that many of them left and they are of much greater value on the spawning gravels than on a grill.
Hatchery steelhead will be missing their adipose fin, which is the small fleshy one on the back between the dorsal fin and tail.
Prior to release from the hatchery, the fin is removed from juvenile steelhead (via scissors or automated machine).
Since it never grows back, the lack of the adipose fin on an adult fish makes it easy to identify as of hatchery origin…and, therefore, in many rivers, legal to keep (check the regs before you go to make sure!).
You’ll sometimes encounter a fish that’s a “tweener” — one that has a partial adipose fin. While this can occur in the wild (rare), it is more often the byproduct of a “miss-clip” by the person doing the fin removal.
Where done by hand, you can imagine that there are going to be some imperfect cuts when people are trying to get through tens of thousands of baby Steelhead.
One other clue to look for, however, is sign of an eroded dorsal fin. When jammed together in fish hatcheries, baby steelies often rub against each other and the concrete walls, resulting in worn down fins.
And here’s another example…
These two examples are pretty obviously hatchery steelhead but what about this one below….?
The dorsal in the above fish is pretty intact and there’s more than a just nub of an adipose but I’m still sure this one is a hatchery steelie (we let it go anyway). If you have any doubt whatsoever my advice is to let the fish go!
Now, before you get any ideas about bringing a pair of scissors with ya to the river, note that most regulations read something along these lines: The adipose fin must be missing and the wound must be healed…
Unfortunately, there are some pea-brained “anglers” out there who fish in the spring when the smolts are out-migrating and clip the fins off wild ones so they can be kept upon return as adults. Lame lame lame!
Of course, wild steelhead will be proudly sporting a fully-intact adipose fin and should always be released carefully with minimal handling.
When you see that your fish has an adipose, it’s best to refrain from netting it, unless you have one of those fish-friendly knotless nets. Also try to avoid dragging it up in the rocks.
Whenever possible, I’ll gently beach them in the shallows, where I can quickly unhook it and snap a photo. Be advised that in places like Washington State, it is illegal to lift a wild steelhead out of the water for a photo.
That doesn’t mean, however, you can’t get a pic. Simply kneel down in the water with the fish. That way, if it squirms and you loose your grip, you’re not dropping it from altitude down onto the rocks.
Of course, if you catch a hatchery fish and it’s legal to keep it, by all means take good care of it and enjoy fresh fish on the grill. Many hatchery managers encourage you to keep clipped fish so don’t feel guilty if you want to take one for dinner…
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This is NOT true!!! Only 25% of the hatchery Steelhead have there Adipose fin removed. So when your fishing its a lottery and it gives you the false impression that there are more wild steelhead than planters when in most river systems it is the complete opposite. Areas were there are hatcheries beneath the dams have terrible hatch’s the water fluctuates so much many times right.
After the Steelhead hatch the water levels will lower destroying an entire hatch or they will ship the fish to the ocean and release them most get eaten right there.
Catch and Release is a political gimmick, when the dams were first built government guaranteed the fishery would stay vibrant with massive hatchery releases to compensate for the loss of thousands of miles of vibrant nesting beds for the fish. ladders and gimmicks have all been a massive failure!
Now it catch and release everywhere instead of planting the fish to be eaten like normal humans we catch and share a fish like paying for a prostitute. Fishing guides actually have names for the fish that get recaught!
Wayne, I’m not sure which stats you live in but here on the west coast, 100 percent of hatchery fish are marked.
Tommy G says
no chromers in da “spirit world anymore ”
where they be …”Tommy G”
Clint Brumitt says
One other feature to identify hatchery steelhead that you sort of mentioned that would be shown with a close up photo is the rays in the dorsal fin. On a wild fish they are straight. On a hatchery fish they have a bend or kink in the hatchery steelhead.
I was sitting next to a fishery biologist at a fishing club meeting long before the issue of wild and hatchery came to the public discussion level. (Yah, I am that old) As the speaker was showing fish caught from this river he focused on, the biologist would say “wild” or “hatchery” Adipose fins were not yet clipped before release. He was just using the shape of the rays of the dorsal to make his determination.
My purpose in writing is to give your audience as many ways as possible to identify a hatchery. Eat them do not release them.
You are correct! Thanks for chiming in. I will add that in places where they must be ad-clipped to be kept, I wouldn’t rely on the dorsal ray method exclusively. From a legal standpoint…