Sep 20, 2017

The Current State of Steelhead

A couple notes, findings, and thoughts...

Recently, it seems as though a day hasn’t gone by this summer where the question doesn’t come up. Whether it’s phone calls, walk in shop convos, or casual talks amongst peers. Pretty much every time the topic arises the underlying notion is that the current state of steelhead is bad, doomed, saddening, or just plain frustrating. Certainly I’m not here to deny any truth to such notions but rather attempt to learn a little more and read between the lines if at all possible. The point of this editorial isn’t to deny the fact that wild steelhead are in peril, or that human caused activity hasn’t hurt fisheries, nor does it look at other dams or regions and their current/historical status quo, but rather attempts to make sense of the current state of steelhead in regards to our local waters- specifically the Bonneville Dam fish counts.

If browsing the Bonneville Dam daily counts and its provided graph of last year’s and the previous 10-year average, the image seen is disheartening. But what does the 10-year average have to do with what we’re expected to see this year (approx. 130,000 steelhead over Bonneville, according fisheries biologist’s) and last year’s low run of just under 190,000? Now I haven’t been a steelheader for many years; therefore my frame of reference is slightly skewed and foreshortened. But, if you’d have fished through the 2,000’s then you experienced some record shattering years for the dam count. 2001, for example had a run total of over 630,000 while 2009 had almost 605,000. Much of this can be attributed to ocean conditions, which allowed for a higher abundance of food and increased survival rates; allowing for some mega return years. In recent years though our strong El NiƱo events have left a “warm blob” of water off the West coast and expanding all the way to Japan, which has hindered the anadromous Pacific salmonids food sources and returns.

Okay, so if only looking at the last 10-15 years it makes our present day steelheading a little disenchanting, but it was important to keep looking back in dam counts… in 1980 was we saw numbers as low or lower than what experts are predicting for this year’s Bonneville total. 1975 had just 85,000 returning over Bonneville. In fact for the first 40 years since 1938 that data had been collected, only a couple years had run totals over 200k. Interesting, I thought. Therefore, does that mean that this year’s projection of 130,000 fish isn’t out of the norm, but rather reflects what real steelheading is- a challenge. When we received low returns of fish it might have been much easier in the past to find aggressive players when only a handful of anglers were fishing versus the same number of fish today and X-times the pressure. Today’s equipment is far better. Spey casting is somewhat quick to pick up and lines have gotten far easier to cast. Guides can easily put clients on drift setups with high rates of success. An overall increase in angler interest has simply increased river traffic, and I indeed fall within some of the above parameters.

I enjoy the challenge of steelhead fishing the most. After transplanting to the Northwest from the Rockies, I began to put down my trout gear, as I wasn’t losing sleep the same way. It was hard to convince myself to *chase pussycats when there were big tigers roaming the rivers (*a joke I heard from a great steelhead guardian, Lee Spencer.) I was consumed with sea-run rainbows that defeated all odds- eluding predation from egg to adult, from freshwater to salt and back, and somehow managing to return home through a gauntlet of adversity. Many survivors bear scars of close encounters with birds, sea lions, tribal nets, etc. They push past lethally warm water, dizzying dams, turbulent falls, and more to reach their natal spawning grounds.

As if nature wasn’t enough, human impact has put undue stress upon their life cycles. For example, I recently heard a couple fly anglers upset over losing fish over on the Deschutes using 6lb test. Yikes, I thought… When water temps reach 70 degrees (such as in July and early August) steelhead mortality rate is at least 10% when proper catch and release is practiced*. Lactic acid buildup is the sense of fatigue and muscle soreness we experience after exercising. Steelhead being some of the more relentless fighters experience this too. Exhausted fish may go into toxic shock resulting in death from a buildup of lactic acid during their fight, and this is only exacerbated in warm water. Fishing with stouter tackle and monitoring water temps can help reduce mortality rate. I did just hear a good rule of thumb for fighting fish- 30 seconds per pound. So the average 8lb Deschutes steelhead should be landed in 4 minutes or less. Put the brakes on em, use a net, #keepemwet, etc.

*Some reports as high as 22%- (Steelhead mortality/temperature rate)

Nevertheless, run totals are certainly low in comparison with the last decade however we’re not too far off from historic totals, especially if we ignore some of those abnormal record shattering years of the 2000’s.

· 1938-2016 Total run average- 211,847

· 1938-1998 First 60 years average 171,881

· 2000-2016 Last 16 years average- 356,035

What I can gather from this is that we’ve had some amazing years, and some not so great years. Part of what makes steelhead life histories so interesting is their ability to diversify their assets and their resilient nature- such as resident male rainbows ability to spawn with female steelhead, or the return of steelhead to Washington’s Elwha River after the dam removal. More importantly I believe is our interaction with the fishery and whether we can provide positive impacts or continue to pour money down other avenues instead of protecting a great resource- our wild fish. Political and policy agenda’s aside, individually we can control or influence our own impacts. I’d like to think many fly anglers practice stewardship to their fisheries and furthermore their passion for the natural outdoors. But we must remember a few things, and primarily that steelhead fishing is tough. More anglers equal more pressure. If you’re a numbers person and need fish a pic for social media, a bobber/indicator with an egg/nymph setup will get it done. If you’d rather swing flies but feel the need to dredge sink tips and large weighted flies for summer-runs, go for it. However, if you’re able to become less attached to the fish themselves and more appreciative of time spent in steelhead country and all its idiosyncrasies than we might choose to fish more traditionally or through a different approach. In doing so maybe we’ll be convinced to fish dryline and skate flies more, fishing for method rather than exigency? Perhaps by fishing a new method you’re unfamiliar with it may also rekindle the initial spark which attracted you in the first place? If pursuing the surface method for summer-runs it’s possible your catch rates will be down, but the fish you do encounter will likely be that much more special for agreeing to your noble terms of endearment.

However you look at it- worst year ever, or just another average one for the books- steelheading should simply be regarded as challenging. It’s not for those with patience issues, or possibly it’s a good tool for those who’d like the practice. Maybe these low return years will weed out the anglers who find the challenge unattractive and resort back to trout and other species? I wouldn’t be opposed to that if it were the case, freeing up some water in the process. Either way, for the fish we do encounter it’s a privilege to make a connection, and if/when that happens we also can put forth a little extra effort and precaution in ensuring their survival. Steelhead are a persistent species and if we give them a little boost, maybe we’ll see some of those record years again in the near future? I hope so anyways.

Cody Booth
Gorge Fly Shop | Product Specialist

"Fly Fish the World with Us"


  1. Thanks Cody for the needed encouragement. Well written!

  2. Very well written and this offers some much needed perspective. Thanks for taking the time!

  3. Thank you Cody. Your assessment offers some sobering facts that we need to digest as concerned fisherman. If we continually practice proven methods of safe release, our efforts will pay off in seeing wild fish return in larger numbers.

  4. Despite the low number of fish getting up to my place on the Grande Ronde (just up river from Troy), I had the best season yet by one measure (still going). Moved here 2006. Most years, 20+ hours per fish, this year, 1.2 hrs per fish. Twice, 2 fish in first 20 minutes. Go figure.

  5. I had a great season on the Klickitat. Because the run was down, there were a lot fewer clowns on the river. So I was quiet about my success. Now I can talk about it because the season is over.

    The factors making the smaller run mainly hit the 1 salt fish. I didn’t spend much time fishing. No long floats, no driving all the way to Summit Creek. All I did was a short drive, an easy walk to the same rock, and catch a big 2 salt in three or four casts, then go home. Because there were fewer clowns on the river, I could always get to my rock, and I didn't have to get up extremely early. And if I didn’t catch anything in that one bucket, I’d go home too, because I didn’t have a better idea on the whole river.

  6. oh, well, there will always be carp!


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