Wild Fish, Bad Fish?

Warning:  ethical conundrum follows.

We love native Pacific salmon, yes?  We love wild salmon and steelhead, yes?  Sure we do.  And we love to catch hatchery fish too.  At least I do.  I would rather, given a choice, hook a wild salmon or steelhead than a hatchery fish.  Not because I can tell right from the start that the fish is a hatchery fish.  Not because I dislike hatchery fish.  I think that it just makes me happy knowing that a river is capable of supporting an honest-to-gosh wild salmon or steelhead throughout its live cycle, that there is still a hope for wild rivers and wild salmon in the future.

And I have the same sense of excitement when I feel the tug, the pull, the grab, the drive-by, yank, tickle or bump, not really knowing if the fish is hatchery or wild until, if I bring the fish close, I can see whether or not the adipose fin is there – or not.

I do feel a great sense of disappointment looking at most of the hatchery steelhead I have caught over the years.  Stubbed-off dorsal fins.  Rounded nose and tail.  The disarray of regenerated scales that signifies early life in a hatchery pond.  To me, these hatchery steelhead do not look healthy.

Not all hatchery steelhead look like the beat-up retired professional boxer, though.  I have caught a few hatchery steelhead that were sleek, muscular, radiant fish, but for a missing fin or maxillary bone.  These fish tell me that it is possible, under the right conditions, to raise hatchery steelhead that are fine-looking fish.

And the same goes for Chinook and coho salmon, except that “nice looking” hatchery salmon seem to be more the norm that the exception.  Hatchery Chinook, in my experience, look a lot like their wild counterparts, and it is often only a close inspection of pectoral fins ventral fins, and dorsal fins that give a hint that the fish was raised in a hatchery, if the fish was not marked by removing an adipose fin.  Fish like these, salmon that look a lot like wild fish, can often be identified through the science and art of scale reading.

Point is, I love wild fish and I love hatchery fish and I love to catch fish, and I am disappointed when a river can not support a decent fun of wild fish and I am really disappointed when I look at a hatchery fish that looks – physically – like it has been run through the veg-o-matic.

Notice that there were a lot of “ands” stringing that overly long sentence together, and not a single “but.”

Too much rambling here.  Expect me to advocate serious efforts to change hatchery practices and do whatever needs to be done to produce hatchery steelhead that are darn near as good-looking as wild steelhead.  I’ll save that for a different post.

I caught a beautiful wild winter steelhead hen recently.  A fish I had been working diligently to catch for quite some time.  On the Swing.  On a sparse Tube Intruder that I “poached” from a fly tied by a friend.  On my Burkheimer 7134.  On a perfect cast.  On a river-day with a good friend who shared my joy.

This hen was big, larger than most I have caught on a fly.  This fish was sweet in may ways.  A reward for so very much practice and preparation, and dreaming, and persistent stubbornness and  – well, any of you who swing flies for winter steelhead know the story.

Funny thing, though, is that this wonderful wild steelhead was an anomaly.  A fish out of context.  An interloper.  A party crasher.  I was fishing for hatchery summer steelhead in a river where wild winter steelhead are not native.  Yeah.  Problem is, I guess that no one was acting as room monitor to make sure that wild steelhead didn’t sneak into the party when they weren’t on the invitation list.

This happens with Pacific salmon.  Conditions have to be right, environments must be hospitable.  If a wild run of salmon or steelhead was not present in a river historically, then a wild run can only be established if some historical limiting factor or barrier is removed.

Coho above Willamette Falls are an example of a case where salmon have established a run of wild fish in rivers where they were not native.  Two points to mention here.  First, to be politically correct, I should be using the phrase “naturally produced” instead of “wild.”  Sorry, too little of my life remains to worry about being politically correct all the dang time.  Second, it is important to understand, or a least accept that wild coho salmon were not “native” to the Willamette above the falls at Oregon City, because passage conditions were only suitable during late spring.

ODFW stocked coho smolts above Willamette Falls for many years, then discontinued to practice as part of an increased emphasis on wild, native spring Chinook and winter steelhead.  Funny thing though, a run of wild (naturally produced) coho seems to have established itself in several tributaries above the Falls.  These fish are a bit of an enigma and could be viewed as a problem, because, most likely, these “wild interlopers” will compete with less-than-healthy native species in some of the same tributaries where the coho have established their new wild runs.

What to do? Possibly, little can be done.  Small runs of wild, non-native fall Chinook have also established themselves above Willamette Falls.  Short of closing he fish ladder during the fall months, these pioneers are probably here to stay.  The historical barrier to passage has been breached, so to speak, and the horses are out of the barn.  Or the chickens are in the kitchen.  Whatever.  There is debate over whether wild summer steelhead in Salmon River, tributary to the Sandy River, are remnants of a native run or if they are simply a non-native gang of party crashers.

ODFW treats both of these runs of wild fish as non-native, and allows anglers to harvest the fish, thereby affording preferential treatment to native wild species, if largely in concept.

The beautiful wild winter steelhead hen I caught was the same sort of fish:  considered non-native by ODFW, this fish could have been harvested legally, a symbolic nod to wild, native spring Chinook that are, in my opinion, virtually extinct in the area where I caught this fish.  Note, if you will, that this fish is (my presumption entirely, without any proof whatsoever) descended from native Willamette winter steelhead.

I happily, reverently released this wild fish, as I might well have happily, reverently released a hatchery summer steelhead if I had caught one.  I am a quirky critter, no doubt.

I didn’t  realize that this fish could have been stuffed into our fish box, until another angler pointed out that local regulations permitted harvest of non-fin-marked trout over 24.”  Seems that ODFW, in recognition of competitive interactions between native and non-native anadromous fish, chose to encourage (or at least allow) harvest of the non-natives.

Without second guessing or passing judgment on the wisdom of the policy, I began to think about the implications.  Salmonids are pioneer species.  Remove a historical barrier to a species or run of salmon or steelhead, and they are likely to establish a run if given a chance.  Given a chance requires sufficient habitat quality, ability to adapt genetically and behaviorally to the new environment, and management regimes that don’t kill ’em off before they can get established.

Knowing what  salmon will do, if given a chance, it is probably worth undertaking a look, case by case, run by run, river by river, and occasionally re-thinking management options.  Would it be desirable to close the Willamette Falls fish ladder in the fall?  Would it be desirable (or even OK) to give summer steelhead in the Salmon River protection from harvest, and see how this run of wild fish fares, rather than haranguing constantly over whether the run is native or not?  And what about the run of wild winter steelhead in the Middle Fork of the Willamette?  What if it turns out that these fish can fare better than the native spring Chinook, currently listed under federal ESA?

What should the policy options be if it turns out that the non-native run of wild winter steelhead is now more ecologically in tune with the highly altered ecosystem in the Middle Fork than the Native spring Chinook?

I do not propose answers to these questions.  They are matters that merit some “outside-the-box” thinking and discussion, I think.

Meanwhile, I am still aglow with the memories of this beautiful henfish.  A fish of several thousand casts.


Post Script: I clearly had salmon and steelhead on the brain when I wrote this.  Striped Bass?  Walleye?  Musky?  Carp?  Egads, things get complicated.  No comment.

6 thoughts on “Wild Fish, Bad Fish?

  1. nice fish and good food for thought … but do you buy that she was an interloper? Given that her kin are so widespread in the basin as a whole? Did she take a wrong turn, or simply didn’t get the memo that she never existed? Like those in westside tribs, now considered “intermittent users” on what basis? When scanty documentation is used to set the bar low, making it easier for some to jump over it, society as a whole is stuck doing the Limbo.

    1. Steve. Great point. Going principally on ODFW’s finding that historical populations of winter steelhead existed upstream to the Calapooia basin, but not upstream into the McKenzie. Genetic analysis shows huge differences between the McKenzie/Middle Fork O. mykiss and downstream populations. So, it seems that winter steelhead were not historically present in these upstream areas in number sufficient to have been recognized – or were genetically isolated from the resident redsides and just not visible enough to have earned a place on the memo.

      All that blather aside, fish don’t read, and they will pioneer (or perhaps re-establish) if they can. JN

  2. This is big. The irony here is similar to your buddy’s hatchery kelt on the Nehalem. The great steelhead in the sky has chosen you two for an important mission: to help us all wake up and see what is right in front of us.

    Sometime between the last ice age and today, steelhead spawned in the upper Willamette drainage. That’s how rainbows got there in the first place, right? And if there is a resident population of rainbows in the McKenzie and Willamette, however genetically distinct, they all came from steelhead, and they all have the propensity to produce steelhead. At least that’s my layman’s understanding of things. Based on this simple fact (?) I am mystified by ODFW’s suggestion that steelhead stopped at the Calapooia. Silly biologists! You guys are so funny!

    I’m pleased to report that winter steelhead are thriving in the Middle Fork. You can bet they’re in the McKenzie, the Coast Fork and the Row. Because they are rainbows, and rainbows live here. For now, anyway.

  3. Jay,

    Great article and Great Fish! The more I learn about these “wild” fish, the more confused I get. So as a general rule “if it’s got the fin, let ‘er swim”. I leave it up to the paying client if they want to take home a hatchery raised fish.

    Any client that wants to smack a wild fish on the head is advised to exit the boat immediately and find their own way downriver. As a little added incentive, they are also notified that their “ride” back to their vehicle will be with an Oregon State Policeman.

    Earlier this week, I think a client of mine may have located your wayward hen’s boyfriend here on the North Santiam. Like your story, we were swinging flies for Hatchery fish and found a diamond in the rough. A beautiful buck that tried to inflict major damage to a 6 wt rod. My photo skills are not up to yours and I was in a hurry to put this incredible fish back where we found him. There is a snapshot on my blog at http://blog.riverwoodfliesonline.com/ if you’re interested.

    I hope your hen and this buck find suitable partners at the end of their journey and produce more of these magnificent fish.

    1. Dave. Thanks for your dedication to our wild fish. They are precious beyond measure, and deserve a fair chance to complete their life cycle. As a guide, you can help set the tone and mentor even senior level anglers. Much appreciated. JN

  4. I’ve caught several wild steelhead in the upper willamette. They spawn in small creeks on the river. I try not to fish for them when they are spawning. But I hook one now and then. Always let them go so there will more in the future.

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