Hatchery brats: To bonk, or not to bonk?


the Menehune stole my beer
That is the question.........................

Seriously, I've wondered about the biological impact of this for a while. Like most if not all on this board, I release all native steelies I'm fortunate enough to hook and land. But in recent years I find myself releasing more and more hatchery steelhead too. I guess it's out of habit more than anything else...........I just don't kill many fish, and I'd rather eat salmon than steelhead anyway.

From a purely biological standpoint, should hatchery steelhead be bonked and removed from the gene pool? I know some threads have touched on this but I'm wondering what the biologist's and board member's opinions are on this issue.

Of course I'd kill an Atlantic Salmon net-pen escapee if I caught one ........ being they are a non-native species.........and I'd take a buttload of photos and count the money I saved on a ticket to Labrador....:rofl:

My own layman's attitude on the release of hatchery steelhead used to be "if the dang thing is strong enough to survive the ocean and make it all the way back here, then it deserves to make some babies". But I've read enough dissenting opinions on this to make me ask the question: is it better to remove them from the gene pool? I know that native genes are priceless and should not be diluted, so is it best to take any brats out of the river? I have plenty of neighbors who would love the hatchery steelies if I brought more home (and they think I'm a bit "tetched in the head" for releasing fish anyway :) ).

What do you think? :hmmm:


Piscatorial predilection
What do I think?, what do others think? who cares? the question is, what do you want out of fishing?

You will get a truck load of opinions, I guess that's what you actually want, but to what end? If more guy's say "Kill 'em All" will you? and if so why?

Actually Mingo, you seem to have already reached a position on this that works for you, right?

I feel, and do, much the same as you, that is I never kill an unmarked fish, and I sometimes harvest a hatchery fish, but not often. Actually this past year I've kept three hatchery steelhead, and released eight others.

The term "Hatchery Brat" is a derogatory term, as if to imply somehow that these fish are less noble, than their wild or natural counterparts, which of course means they are less valuable and therefore easy to kill.

These so called "Brats" make the same journey and brave the same dangers as any other steelhead, they struggle every bit as hard to survive and reproduce. How are they less valued? because of their birth place?

I know many say that hatchery fish weaken, the pure gene pool
of native fish, and that may be true. But any river system that has already had hatchery stock loosed into it will never, exclusively, hold a pure strain of steelhead again, in fact many of these same river systems might not carry any steelhead now at all, were it not for hatchery stock. How do you know that an unmarked fish was not born of a hatchery raised parent?

Have hatchery programs been miss-managed? yes! Are they changing and trying to become better? yes many are. I personally respect these hatchery raised fish, the place and method of their birth was not their choosing, but the struggle for life and the accomplishment of their journey, is every bit as admirable as any wild or natural born fish.

I will never feel good about killing one of them, and I will never do so without the utmost respect.

... depends on how much a pound they are in the stores. If its over 4.00 lb, Mr. Steelie, meet Mrs. Weber! jk

It actually depends on the mood I'm in. In reality, I do not have a problem with anyone "bonking" these zombies.



Active Member
Mingo, You are correct that they are strong fish for having survived the ocean and migrated back to the rivers. I also agree with Papafish that hatchery fish have gotten a bad rap and are worthy and noble sporting quarry. However, the problem from a genetic standpoint is not their viability as adults because they are subjected to the same selective environmental conditions as native fish in the ocean. The problem is in their genetic viability in the egg through smolt stages. It is here that the hatchery removes virtually ALL the selective environmental conditions that native fish are subjected to, and is why hatchery fish reproduce so poorly with wild fish.

So yes, you are doing native fish a favor by bonking hatcherys but really it is a personal choice. In my case, I love to eat steelhead and I'm on a budget, so I actually TARGET hatchery fish (gasp). Every native I release is a special treat, but would NEVER tell the wife I released a clipped fish (she likes steelhead even more than I do!). Getting skunked more than 2 or 3 times in a row will also put me in the doghouse (especially with gas prices what they are!).


Active Member
Mingo, thats a tough question with no easy answer. Are the wild SH the same fish of 60 years ago and will they be the same natural wild fish 60 years from now?......SH go through two-three generations every decade. I would tend to believe that the hatchery fish have already had some genetic (?) input on the SH wild population....and maybe, slowly these hatchery fish are acquiring the selective traits of wild SH. What would you call a 10th generation (exclusive hatchery-blood line) SH if the fin wasn't clipped? Once again I don't know but sure am glad we have both for fly-fishing.


Active Member
BONK...that is what they are for....the more that survive to spawn in the wild or compete with wild fish, the more harm to wild fish.


Active Member
Mingo -
Your question was -
"From a purely biological standpoint, should hatchery steelhead be bonked and removed from the gene pool?

As with almost everything in the fishing management world this is not a black and white issue. In other words it depends on the situation - mainly what sort of the hatchery program is producing the returning hatchery fish? and what are the interactions between those hatchery fish and the system's wild fish?

If the hatchery program is a genetic rescue program - an attempt to recovery a depressed or listed stock then the answer may well be that "bonking" one would have an adverse impact. Though those impacts may be mitigated when there is a high or excess abundance of hatchery fish (a current example would be the Methow River).

If the hatchery program is one of harvest supplementation then certainly there would not be an adverse impact from "bonking" the returning adults. Whether there is a benefit from removing them from the river prior to spawning depends on the degree of interactions between the hatchery and wild fish on the spawning grounds.

In the case where the potential is for a significant portion of the hatchery and wild fish spawning together then removing as many as possible makes good biological sense. For me a significant over-lap between the hatchery and wild fish would be something like 2 to 5% or more of the fishing spawning at the same time and place as the wild fish being of hatchery origin. (an example would be something like the Hoko river or some of the other coast streams).

In the case where the overlap between the spawning of the hatchery and wild fish is not significant then there may not be a compelling reason to the "bonk" them if they are not wanted for the table. If they don't represent a genetic risk it actually makes some sense to release the unwanted fish so that they may potential be caught by another angler - increasing the quality of the fishery and its economic value. This would be especially true on river system with heavy fishing pressure and high exploitation rates on the hatchery fish (a couple examples would be winter runs Skagit and Snohomish systems).

I realize that the above probably looks like I'm ducking your question. For myself I release the majority of the salmonids that I catch. I do keep the ocassional hatchery steelhead that I catch - fish almost exclucive in the North Puget Sound region - Given the choice I select males over the females. Experience has shown that their flesh is generally of higher quality and it is clear that males represent a higher genetic risk than the females.

Please note I did not refer to the hatchery steelhead as "brats". I find that term inappropriate. A brat is defined as "an ill-behaved child". Returning hatchery steelhead certainly are not children - they are all adult fish. Given the current state of our fishery resources hatchery steelhead offer a significant recreational opportunity - I'll leave the discussion of whether that opportunity is worth the biological risk for another day.

Tight lines


Triploid, Humpy & Seaplane Hater
I used to bonk all hatchery steelhead I caught. Now I only bonk what I can eat as fresh fish, otherwise I release them. Same goes with hatchery silvers from the salt.


Active Member
Curt....what about competition for resources between hatchery progeny and wild fish, be it in the river when after the hatchery smolts are released, or estuary, or ocean....this certainly occurs with fish from all rivers with wild runs, and while genetic introgression rates are low in north sound rivers, removing hatchery fish is one way to make them lower. Also, I know you believe that that the historical and present day numbers of early spawning wild fish in north sound rivers were and are small, but removing hatchery fish eliminates the chance for these fish to interact with the few that are present. From a biological perspective, removing hatchery fish certainly won't hurt wild fish of the same species, and in virtually all cases will help them to varying degrees.
Good question Mingo, and thanks for the insight Curt.

I have read that studies on salmon indicate that environmental factors can impact genetics of salmon over a rather short period of time. This leads to hatchery originated fish over time acquiring genetic traits similar to the native fish stock population. Is there any reason that the same process would not also effect hatchery steelhead? If so, and the timing of the spawning of the hatchery and native SH do not grossly overlap, it seems that release of hatchery SH would benefit depressed SH runs in most river systems.


Active Member
Tom -
Without a doubt the best thing for wild steelhead or any wild salmonid for that matter is having no hatchery fish. It reduces the risk to the wild resource. It is eqaully true that the best thing for wild fish is no fishing of nay kind.

Society has decided that both hatchery planting and fishing are reasonable activities (since I fish I'm thankful for the later). The question becomes how can we engage in those activities while holding the risks that those activities represent to the wild resource to acceptable levels. The comfort we each have each activity varies with our comfort with various levels of risk management. Bottom line unless we are to lock our rivers up in museum our activities represent some risk to the resource. My position above is based on my understanding of hatchery and wild interactions and my personal comfort levels with the risks associated with those interactions.

Ultimately it is to each of us to develop our wild fish ethics based on those risk management assessments. I have attempt to put forth my personal wild fish ethic based on my limited knowledge of the situation.

Tight lines


Active Member
Smalma- Thank you for your reply. You have characterized the situation exactly the way I understand it. I too have come to my own ethic based on this understanding, as I encourage everyone else to also. My hope is that when they make this decision, they will not have an inaccurate or false picture of the implications of their decision. Therefore I am attempting, as you have as well, to help them understand some commonly accepted knowledge of the biology of these fish.

Salt Dog- many of the selection pressures on wild fish in a system are reversed or not present in hatchery fish. Reproductively, there is no natural mate selection process (which is very important in the wild). As juveniles, selection favors individuals suited to a domesticated habitat (i.e. concrete ponds). Reproduction timing is also altered to human desire. If hatchery fish were allowed to spawn in the wild over many generations, they will eventually select for better genes, but not while still be under intense domestication selection of a hatchery system. Moreover, if hatchery fish were allowed to spawn in the wild for generations, the detriment to existing wild populations while the hatchery fish were being selected for more favorable genes, would be horrific.

bottom line, when you release a hatchery fish, one of a few things happens:
1) It dies anyway without reproducing (natural death or fishing induced by you or the next guy who catches it)
2) it gets to the hatchery and creates the next generation of hatchery fish
3) it spawns in the wild with either a wild fish or a hatchery fish and creates a bunch of fish inept at surviving or reproducing, which pollute the wild gene pool and weaken it for generations to come as the weak genes are sloooowly selected out
4) it is caught and released by somebody else and faces all of the above options again.