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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So just what is it about steelhead trout that makes people nutty…and do crazy things?
I was once doing a phone interview with a writer from a big East Coast magazine. From his cozy office in New York City, he asked me that very question.
It was hard for me to answer. I mean, with steelhead…you either get it or you don’t.
There are so many deep-seeded feelings and emotions for me that are tied to these fish that it’s almost impossible to articulate in a way that somebody on the outside can understand.
So, I spat out the first thing to come to mind:
“I fish for steelhead so I can see them up close…”
And then, I just got on a roll and rattled off a total unabated stream of consciousness…
I fish for steelhead because I want to get as close to them as I can. I feel that they are like fine art, each one to be viewed quietly, taken in and remembered.
I told him that I have never felt more alive and in touch with the world – and myself – as when I’m standing in a misty canyon, with a ribbon of emerald flowing in front of me.
Steelhead haunt my dreams and run through my veins.
They have taken me to the top of the mountain and they have broken my heart. I’ve bled for them; I’ve frozen for them and I’ve driven, flown, hiked and floated thousands and thousands of miles for them…and there’s not a single day of the year that I don’t think about them.
Steelhead make me straight up crazy. Even on dry land, I can close my eyes and literally feel what that moment of first contact is like, that initial tight line surge. And I can make my heart rate jump by simply imagining a float going under or a plug rod going off. Oh man…the plug takedown of a steelhead…wow…if that doesn’t get your juices flowing, you’d better check your pulse because you’re probably dead.
Steelhead make me want to follow every single anadramous river from the mouth to the source – and then float back down them again. They make me think irrational thoughts like maybe I should just sell the house and get a toy hauler that fits a drift boat and hit the open road…and never come back!
They drive me to drink; they drive me to the limits –mentally, physically, emotionally. Steelhead make me wear the numbers off my credit cards and sometimes pull the hairs off my head.
They give me this insatiable desire to fix all the damage that has been done to the rivers they call home. They drive me to pick up trash, fight for flows, plant trees and dump spawning gravel by the truckload into the water.
Steelhead are the fish I’d miss Christmas for and the reason I got married during the offseason. They give me sweaty palms and weak knees. Though I’ve probably shaved at least a year off my life expectancy due to all the junk food consumed on steelie road trips, I also believe that every day you fish for steelhead is one you get to tack onto the end.
And speaking of the end, if I had a choice, I’d go steelhead fishing on my last day on the planet. I’ve informed my family what to do when my time is about up: Take me to the top of some whitewater gorge with a drift boat and a couple rods. No need for a life jacket or a shuttle…it will be my last ride. Hopefully, there will be a couple biters along the way!
Steelhead are responsible for all the drift and float and plug and fly and center pin rods…the jigs and stacks of Pip’s and boxes of plugs; the BC Steels and the spinner boxes; the Slinkies and pink worms; the two deflated pontoon boats; the Fish Pills all over the floor; the nets and waders and boots and pink stained fridge – that all make my garage useless to terrestrial vehicles.
They’ve also ruined many a potentially productive day in the office…all it takes is a photo or a text from somebody on the river and I’m worthless the rest of the afternoon.
Steelhead are why my favorite color is green — because it reminds me of the perfect hue of a river just coming into shape and the giant redwoods that stand on its banks. And because of the dorsal color of one of those awesome looking bucks that’s transitioning from ocean chrome to river camo – olive back and a faint pink cheek and stripe peeking out from silver flanks.
In short, steelhead are epic, nearly indescribable critters that make me tick and dream and feel alive. I’m not at all sure the interviewer ever really got the message but I bet you all do…
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Ever done dumb stuff in unworthy boats? I sure have! Here’s one of my favorites from back in my college days….
The salty ol’ sea dog who answered the door had a thick, bushy beard, bottomless black eyes and skin tanned by decades of sea salt and sun.
“Can I help you?” he asked impatiently.
I had seen the old, dilapidated 8-foot wooden pram lying upside-down in his yard near the bay. In a past life, it had been a tender — a little row boat used to get from shore out to fishing boats in the harbor. I had big plans for the little vessel and had come to knock on his door to see if he was interested in selling.
“If you are looking to sell that old boat, “I’ll give you $40 for it,” I said.
The old commercial fisherman tugged his beard and thought for a moment.
“Tell you what, kid,” he said. “Give me $20 and you have a deal…”
I thanked him profusely as he helped me load the rotting plywood craft into the back of my truck. I was so stoked…as a college student I barely could scratch up the $40 I had offered — and now not only did I have my first ever “drift boat,” but I also had $20 extra for beer!
The next morning, my buddy Randy and I dumped the boat into the river and pushed off. The plan was to pull plugs like the guide boats but we hardly had a chance to wet a line. I was too busy rowing in circles — and into trees — and Randy had his hands full with a Taco Bell cup bailing water out of the boat as fast as he could. Apparently, my new drifter had a lot more in common with a pasta strainer than I’d originally thought.
I suppose you could count the day as a success by the fact that we arrived back at the takeout alive. Sure, we had a few casualties: I lost a hat, a blue Lil’ Playmate cooler and some skin off my cheek in a dust up with an overhanging alder branch — and another tree took Randy’s most prized possession: his snow white Apache fiberglass fly rod and spinning reel combo. Overall, however, we were happy with the mission and made plans to do a two-day float through a rugged canyon in the thing.
Now, with the benefit of hindsight, I can’t for the life of me understand how we thought we were prepared for a multi-day canyon float after a Class I run had almost done us in. But I guess that’s the beauty of youth…you think you can do anything.
For the next couple days, we prepared little boat for the big voyage. We dubbed her the “Rotten Tomato,” for the peeling red and green paint on her sides and interior. All the seams where the plywood came together got caulked and then gone over with fiberglass cloth and resin. After she dried, a quick water test on the local lake proved the leaks were fixed and she was ready for battle.
On a Friday morning, we got a lift to the upper put-in. Randy and I loaded some food, camping gear, fishing stuff and a plastic bailing bucket (just in case) into the boat set sail. As our shuttle driver pulled out of sight, I noticed that our leaks had mysteriously come back — perhaps even worse than before. Of course, that was in the days before cell phones so we had no way to call our ride back. Even if we’d had a phone, though, I’m pretty sure we would have just continued on anyway…
All we knew about this stretch of river was there was a portage you had to do around a set of falls. Supposedly, the cataract was somewhere roughly halfway down but we had very little intel to go on. And no Google Earth for that matter, either.
As Randy bailed, I got a little more comfortable on the oars. We successfully negotiated a couple class II rapids, which got our confidence up and then managed to catch a halfpounder on a plug. Things were looking good! Then it started to rain…
The canyon was socked in with low clouds the second half of the day and the rain never let up. That, of course, caused more work for both of us. Randy had to bail faster and I had to get out and drag the boat over almost every riffle because the water was so low everywhere but inside our boat. The little 8 footer probably had 20 gallons sloshing around on the bottom at all times.
As evening approached, we were spent. We pitched camp and ate cold, smoky hotdogs and beans cooked over a very wet pile of wood that just didn’t want to ignite.
The morning dawned clear and cold and we quickly bailed the boat, loaded up and pushed off. We fished, rowed and bailed for a few hours until the river made a hard right into a steep canyon wall. At first it looked as if the water simply disappeared and then, when we were past the point of no return, it dawned on us that we were probably headed for the waterfall! I rowed frantically and totally inefficiently as my first mate carefully stood up on the cooler to get a better look.
“Dude, I can’t see anything…but I hear some very loud, rushing water!”
With the river picking up speed and the canyon walls stretching up into high vertical faces on both sides, there was nowhere to go but downstream. The roar got louder and the pucker factor went through the roof. Even we dumb, “invincible” kids knew that this was a bad situation and there was no way out!
Just as I had resigned myself to the fact that we were going to get swept over the falls, we rounded the bend and the river revealed itself. Instead of a deadly drop, there was simply a fast riffle making all the racket. Exuberant high fives ensued and we continued on our merry way.
The high of surviving the “faux falls” was short lived, however, as we soon came to a rough patch of water about 300 yards long. It was foaming whitewater riddled with boulders, one exceptionally large log and ended with a 5-foot drop. Discretion being the better part of valor, we opted to portage. The terrain was very steep and littered with the same boulders that were in the river. Big suckers, too. And thats precisely when we realized that the Tomato was quite possibly the heaviest 8-foot boat ever built. I’m not sure if it was just that she leaked so much that all the plywood was super saturated or what, but man it felt like it was made from cast iron.
We grunted, yanked and pushed the boat up one side of a rock, rested and then slid it down the backside. Then it was blood, sweat and tears to get to the top of the next. On and on we went for what seemed like forever. After leaving a trail of red and green paint across the boulder field, we eventually got the boat back in the water, just below the drop.
“Well, dude…those must be the falls,” said Randy. “Glad we are done with that!”
Again, we were going on very limited and woefully incomplete intel on this mission but from what we had ascertained, it was smooth sailing after the falls. And, based on the info we had, we were now halfway home.
Randy and I then settled into a routine. I rowed and backed our plugs down the river and he bailed water with his cup. Stoke, stroke, scoop, scoop, scoop. Between his feet, there was a 2-foot line of bare wood, the paint long since worn off by the constant bailing. Since the river was still low, we were getting out at almost every riffle to drag our little vessel across the shallow bars. It became pretty apparent to us why real drift boats don’t have keels. It was exhausting but we were in good spirits knowing that, despite the slow fishing, we’d successfully made it through the tough spots and were on the home stretch.
Soon, the river started to narrow again and the gradient increased. The banks got steeper and the current picked up pace. Instead of floating out to the low lands near the ocean, we were descending into another canyon! And that’s when we heard it. Faint at first, but growing ever louder. There was no mistaking the low rumbling noise: There were falls ahead!
Luckily, there was a gravel bar within reach so we pulled the boat up onto the bank. We couldn’t see the whitewater from our position, so we hiked downstream to get a glimpse of what we were up against. I say “hiked,” but it was more of a scramble. The narrow cut in the hills was awash in boulders that made the ones we’d portaged earlier look like spawning gravel. These dudes were impressive: some were car sized, while others looked bigger than UPS trucks. More than a few were the size of small apartments. As we crawled downstream, it dawned on Randy and I that we were in for a brutal push-and-drag session if the falls were as bad as they sounded.
Well, they were. The river squeezed between two large boulders and then plunged a good 10 or 12 feet straight down.
“Um, I guess these are the real falls…”
It then hit us at the same time: Not only did we have another grinder of a portage on our hands but once we got through it all, we’d only be halfway home. Not really an awesome realization when it’s around 3 pm, you’ve still got roughly 8 or 9 miles to go and you didn’t plan on enough food for two nights on the river!
The passage over all those massive boulders was a slow, painful affair. When we finally made it to the drop, we could see that there was nowhere easy to launch the boat. So, I made an executive decision to push the boat off a 10-foot cliff to save time. As soon as she got airborne, I had some clarity. This drop could very easily blow the Tomato into a bazillion pieces and then we’d be stuck hoofing it out. Bailing and dragging her over gravel bars was laborious, but certainly better than walking over rough terrain while carrying all of our gear.
My heart was in my throat as she fell. The Tomato hit the water below with a sickening slap, shuddered for a moment and looked as if she was about to come completely apart. Then she centered up and started bobbing proudly.
“Randy, pease try to talk me out of it the next time I think dropping a boat off a cliff is a good idea!”
As the miles passed and the sun set, we had a huge new respect for our little craft.
“Dude, floating is so much better than walking…can you imagine hiking outta here?” Randy said as we floated past a thick wooded area. “We love you, Tomato!”
We shot the last few miles in the dark. All we had was a tiny penlight to see where we were going but we eventually got back down to the takeout. The Rotten Tomato had delivered us safely…and had earned a much more honorable name. That evening on the way back to the dorms, we christened her The Queen of the Canyons.
That was just the beginning of the adventures we had in that boat. She made all sorts of river descents, spent a lot of time trolling the lakes and even saw some saltwater action. Not a bad second life for a discarded tender.
We never could get the Queen to stop leaking so she eventually gave way to a 10-foot Sears Gamefisher jonboat (which I have written about here in the past). At the end of college, I took her back home to my folk’s house in Auburn, CA where my mom considered using it as a planter box.
The Queen wasn’t having any of it, though. She had one more adventure left in her. That winter, the small creek on my parents’ property got unusually high, and one night, The Queen set sail one last time. I never saw her again…