Trout define the future of Steelhead – Diversity is the key

IMG_3247I find myself thinking back to the cool of winter during these hot summer months. Multiple layers of clothing, rising before the dawn, horrible coffee, snow/sleet/wind/rain draining my spirit, endless hours of driving, and being on the hunt for an elusive prey.

I think of the picture to the left and know it’s possible to believe in magic.

A native wild hen traveled thousands of miles to meet me this cold day in February in Oregon. She has touched my soul and now know what this unicorn means to me: a constant sense of purpose.

It is a purpose shared  by many people in the PNW. I have often said that there are a few things you just don’t mess with in conversation unless you are looking for strong comments and opinions: Politics, Religion, and Steelhead. Unless you want to open up a serious case of whoop-ass with some people, you better be informed as best you can.

So I decided to attend a Steelhead Science Workshop for Anglers put together by the Trout Unlimited program Wild Steelheaders United.

I had been interested in the Wild Steelheaders United site for some time. Being involved with Trout Unlimited for the past 7-8 years, this program springing up over the last year and focused in the PNW, having seen some of the science they have put together – I knew this program was going to have some serious impacts to my life as an angler. The education I have gotten by paying attention during these presentations, and available literature on the subject, has been at times both inspiring and depressing for a variety of reasons.

Let’s get to the meat of the matter here…

Steelhead don’t exist unless we have healthy trout populations – period. Whether they be wild populations, re-introduced, or straight hatchery programs – none of them work without trout and their habitat. There’s no difference between a steelhead and a trout other than basic anadromy. What is anadromy? Anadromy is simply defined as: “Fish species who travel from salt water to fresh”. The science that is available at this time has only been able to determine this difference even through genetic testing and comparisons.

So why are trout so important? It comes to what is being called the “Portfolio Effect” in some circles.  Basically this is being compared to your “Financial Portfolio” and makes an interesting analogy – “To be diverse in your portfolio allows you to maintain better health”. Whether the health is financial or genetic – the similarity exists in the fundamental approach of diversity being a requirement, not an option.

While other species like salmon have anadromy as their method, the diversity of the steelhead population has only recently become as great a focus as salmon. Many pieces of science have recently been published to help create a focus of relevant (and usable) data for policy makers to make decision on how to proceed for the health of steelhead. This diversity is a two way street and ultimately improves the health of our trout fisheries as well as steelhead.

I won’t get into why genetic diversity is important – I think that’s plain enough to understand for anyone: genetic uniformity = bad, genetic diversity = good. Whether we are talking about cattle, fish, people, plants, etc – all life needs some diversity, it just so happens we are talking about trout and steelhead.

Here’s some facts I recently learned:

  • Resident Trout Parentage and Gene Flow of Steelhead
    Sire up to 50% of steelhead – Seamons et al. 2004; Christie et al. 2011
    Produce 0-50% of juveniles – Berejikian et al. 2013
    0-20% of adults – Zimmerman and Reeves 1999; Christie et al. 2011; Courter et al. 2013
    Up to 40% of steelhead genes derived from residents  Christie et al. 2011

So what else besides genetic diversity is needed? You have to have the ecological diversity to support the trout who are major influencers of the steelhead population. Our headwater streams that support spawning habitat are vital areas of concern. The populations of trout that reside there need protection, restoration, and connectivity.

That means being aware of a variety of issues including flow, temperature, habitat, barriers, diversions, recreational impact, and most importantly – education and awareness. The last point is where I hope to help with this project I am working on.

The Trout Bus has been created to enlist support for organizations who are working toward the issues I listed.

It is my hope that more of you will ask questions about how you can get involved.

The first thing I have always held in this process is that you have to start the conversation before the conversation can create action from the asking. So ask questions of me, of the groups out there working on these issues, your legislators who create policy, and the agencies who are tasked with following the policies.


  • The majority of our rivers in the PNW need help to conserve, protect, and restore their trout populations.
  • The steelhead need the trout populations to thrive in order to allow for genetic diversity.
  • Help your local river however you can – whether for trout or steelhead.
  • Keep asking questions.

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