Let’s go back to March of 2006. I was fishing with two good friends and one of us hooked a steelhead. Off downstream it ran, well into the backing to make a great head-over-heels leap. “Chrome!” one of my friends remarked. “I’m pretty sure it’s a kelt,” I said. My buddies weren’t quite convinced, but soon we had the fish close enough to see that it was, indeed a post-spawning female.
By the way, the term kelt refers to a spawned-out salmon or steelhead. The term was in use on Atlantic Salmon waters for centuries and is used my many here in the Pacific Northwest also. More often, anglers in this region will use terms like spawn-out, snake, downstreamer, or run-back to identify a steelhead that has finished its reproductive activity and is headed back to the ocean.
The freshly spawned-out female pictured above is what they expected to see, not the silvery fish that we had hooked. This female still has the rosy opercle and faint but noticeable lateral blush common to sexually mature female steelhead. The fish’s sex is easily noted by the fact that the head slopes in a smooth convex curve from top of head to the snout. A male steelhead would have a subtle but noticeable concave dip in this forehead shape.
Female steelhead undergo a striking change in appearance, reflecting hormonal changes, after they spawn. These post-spawning females will lose their rosy cheeks and lateral stripe, regaining perfectly clean silvery sides and white bellies. Over the years, I have found a surprising number of steelhead anglers who have not learned to recognize silvered-up kelts from fresh run, chrome steelhead.
Both male and female steelhead change physiologically as they mature prior to spawning. The physical changes are far more striking in the males than females. Males become redder, narrower, and their head shape changes more as they mature sexually. Females to not change their appearance nearly as much as males, although they get quite plump as their ovaries mature and the rosy cheek and red lateral stripe becomes prominent as they approach spawning condition.
Here’s the tricky part. Shortly after a female steelhead spawns, the henfish experiences a hormonal shift that triggers a seaward migration behavior and a shift to a “smolt-like” appearance. Exactly how quickly this occurs, I’m not sure. I suspect it occurs over a few days rather than weeks. Ideas, anyone?
Post-spawning females transform from exhibiting a broad red lateral stripe to being very shiny. Their backs will usually be an olive-green instead of the gun metal blue characteristic of a fresh-from-the-ocean, “chrome” steelhead.
Male steelhead are different. I don’t remember ever seeing a silvered-up male steelhead kelt, although I have seen plenty of male steelhead that were sexually mature and could have been “finished” with spawning activity.
Whereas a female will head back towards the ocean rather quickly after spawning, the spawning activity of a male steelhead is far more protracted; a male will persist, moving around the river, looking for more females to spawn with and more males to fight.
When a female steelhead deposits her eggs, she’s done. End of spawning activity. Hormonal changes and seaward migration usually commences fairly quickly. Males? Not so. They keep at it for a month, two months, before getting the cue to cease and desist.
I don’t remember ever seeing a chromed-up post spawning male steelhead. I have seen a lot of silvered-up females. It is common for post spawning steelhead to feed actively on their return to the ocean also, so they can be voracious biters.
This photo shows a fresh run winter steelhead hen. This female is sexually immature and is a relative newcomer to the river.
This photo shows a ripe male winter steelhead. Note the distinct red opercle and the slope of the fish’s forehead; both are striking characteristics of sexually mature, “ripe” male. The maxillary bone is also very dark, another sign of an advanced stage of maturity.
This photo shows a close-to-ripe female winter steelhead. Note that this fish has only a slight rosy hue at lateral line and on opercle. This is common for female winter steelhead hens to not display striking sexual characteristics.
This photo shows a post spawning hen steelhead. This fish is very slim and has regained a “silvery” appearance that could be mistakenly associated with a “fresh-run” fish. This steelhead was handled gently, photographed, and released.
How often have any of you heard anglers report having caught “chrome” steelhead that had “pale flesh” and “tasted terrible”? When questioned, I have heard these same anglers say that the fish were fresh because the eggs were “really small.”
I’m guessing that these steelhead were silvered-up kelts: slim, sleek, shiny, and holding next year’s tiny eggs nestled in healing ovary tissues.
I encourage anglers to learn as much as they can about the life history of the fish they so love to catch. The more we understand and respect these magnificent fish, the more effectively we will be able to advocate for their protection.