Steelhead and Rainbows


Active Member
Last night I attended a meeting of the Wild Steelhead Coalition. The evening's speaker was Curt Kraemer, WDFW fisheries biologist, and his topic was steelhead management. His one-hour presentation turned into a freewheeling, two-hour-plus, open discussion with the membership. There were many interesting issues talked about or touched on and I thought that a couple of them might be of interest to the members of this board.

Speaking about the mortality of parr and smolts, Curt wandered a bit onto the subject of resident rainbows. Most of us are aware that there were, and in some cases still are, small populations of resident rainbows in many of our Puget Sound and coastal rivers. What I was largely unaware of, however, is that there is a substantial body of scientific evidence indicating that the progeny of these residents are able to, and often do, adopt an anadromous lifestyle; in effect, becoming steelhead. The opposite also occurs, some pre-migrant steelhead choosing to adopt a stay-at-home way of life, becoming resident rainbows. Interbreeding and hybridization also occurs among the two groups. The resident rainbows, then, represent a sort of safety net for the existing steelhead, providing a pool from which new anadromous populations may be recruited.

These residents may live for as long as ten years and grow to surprisingly large sizes. I've personally never caught one over fifteen inches but, according to Curt, they can get much larger. Unfortunately, these resident rainbows were largely extirpated in the "good old days" of 6-inch-minimum-size and twenty-fish limits. Due to slow growth and continued mortality (largely from baitfishing during the summer and fall months) their recovery has, at best, been glacially slow. When the WDFW (then Fish & Game Dept.) proposed extensive bait bans in the '80's, largely to protect these residents, the proposal went nowhere, except to frighten the salmon egg processors and other purveyors of bait into lobbying a bill through the legislature making it illegal for the department to outlaw the use of bait in the state's river on any large-scale basis. Currently any bait ban can only be applied on a stream-by-stream basis, and then only after extensive studies to justify such an action (which has been done on a few rivers such as the lower Stillaguamish and the Snoqualmie during the summer season).

The existence of resident rainbow populations with the ability to turn themselves into migratory steelhead has important implications for rivers like the Elwha when the dams finally come out. Some, or even much of that river's steelhead gene pool may have remained relatively intact over the last ninety years, it's too bad that the same can't be said for its big chinooks.

All of you who are steelheaders might consider joining the Wild Steelhead Coalition. It's a very active organization whose meetings almost always feature interesting speakers, usually people on the cutting edge of fisheries science. Check out their website at www.wildsteelheadcoalition.


Active Member
That makes sense to me. Rainbow and Steelhead *are the same thing* after all. It seems to me that almost all trout populations with access to the salt will go for it (Rainbow, Cutt, Bull Char, etc). It also makes sense that a few would hang around in the fresh for their lives, just as some Rainbows are in the salt for 1,2,3 years- and what about the 1/2 pounders in the Rogue? Lots of variation in behavior. In the El Nino years of 97/98 in California, breeding "Steelhead" starting showing up in creeks where they hadn't been for years, like San Mateo creek in Orange County. Were they resident Bow's that had slipped out some time before, or exploring Steelies that decided to take a chance on the high water? Who knows? I'm just glad they're as versitile as they are.
Very interesting...thanks a lot Preston. I need to join WSC. Any other interesting topics brought up at the meeting? Did Curt mention anything about the status of Deer Creek or Sauk steelhead runs?

There is good news. I have a friend that works at the Washington State University Fisheries managment department. Their most recent focus is reading the mapped genode from both species and finding every similarity and difference that exists. I am confident that we will get to see the results in the next few years. I am waiting to find out if after many generations of the anadromous species becoming landlocked if their evolution has allowed them to resort back to anadromy. I understand that resident rainbows are capable of mating with resident cutthroat where the anadromous varieties are not capable of cross breeding. This is a large distingishing factor in deciding if a steelhead at one point did become landlocked, how it can remain landlocked without breeding with the resident cutthroat. This is a very exciting factor with rivers that have been dammed for extended periods of time. The reason is because if we consider most rivers like the Elwah river which have no migratory run above the dam. This river is claimed to have extinct populations of steelhead. This claim could be false which could allow a natural cycle of pre-migratory rainbows to anadromous steelhead. This could mean that when the dam is finally removed, it would be unnecessary to adopt a hatchery program to sustain the populations of steelhead.
Imagine the Elwah river becoming a wild river again without human intervention. This is what I am hoping for, a wild habitat that was able to reverse the cycle and reintroduce it's own run of wild steelhead again without human intervention. Lets cross our fingers for the Fisheries Department at WSU.


There is one river out here on the OP that has these large rainbows in decent numbers. These fish live high in the river drainage where man rarely bothers them. I personally have never been up where they are but know a few people that have. Fish up to 5 pounds are not uncomman. I have caught a few of these fish in the middle river up to 20 inches but only a handfull in my life time so they rarely venture out of the top end of the river from my expiepeince. I doubt there is more than 1 person every three to four years that goes up after these fish and its probally a good thing. These are truely unique fish that need to be protected on all rivers so they have an oportunity to come back. It goes to show you that we have many missing elements on our steelhead river accross the state that need to be rebuilt before the rivers as a whole can become healthy agian.


Active Member
He did mention that there has been a slide in the canyon of Deer Creek which has made a waterfall (which may have been one of the factors that has kept the Deer Creek summer run strain isolated, apparently the winter run fish are unable to negotiate it) somewhat higher and possibly more difficult to ascend. On the good side, they have counted over 200 fish up and into the creek already. Bad news: the Skykomish only received about half of the predicted wild winter fish returns so the spring catch-and-release season is likely to be cancelled again this year. The Skagit and Sauk did a little better in that regard but none of the winter runs in Puget Sound tributaries have made any substantial recovery. We seem to be sharing this condition with rivers on the east side of Vancouver Island while our coastal rivers and the rivers on the west side of Vancouver Island appear to be doing rather better. Oddly enough, it only seems to be the winter runs that are having a hard time of it, summer runs are doing much better. Kramer attributes it to ocean conditions and compares steelhead riding the North Pacific gyre, where conditions still seem to be quite variable, to kids riding a carousel. In this case they seem to have picked a losing horse (not a consistent metaphor, I realize). Anyhow, I wish I'd taken notes and could give you a fuller report.


Active Member
Short article of note re: "extinct populations".

Trout May Complicate Work on Toll Road

June 24, 1999

The Orange County Register

Laboratory tests have confirmed the existence of endangered steelhead trout in San Mateo Creek, biologists said Wednesday, a finding that could complicate construction of a toll road proposed for southern Orange County.

Preliminary test results on the earbones of a 2-year-old fish caught in the creek in April show it was was born of an oceangoing mother. That means southern steelhead trout, thought to be extinct in the San Mateo watershed, spawned in the creek as recently as 1997.

"Before, I wasn't really sure if they were steelhead," said state Fish and Game biologist Alex Vejar, who estimates at least 30 of the fish inhabit San Mateo Creek. "It was always possible they came down from someone's stocked ponds, or that someone actually stocked (the creek) themselves."

Now, Vejar said, speculation that the fish were planted in the creek can be put to rest; stocking the creek with ocean-born steelhead would be extremely difficult.

The important question, especially for the builders of the proposed Foothill South Transportation Corridor, is whether the San Mateo steelhead will receive federal protection. All steelhead are considered endangered, but when the species was placed on the endangered-species list two years ago, no populations were known south of Malibu Creek.

First, experts at the National Marine Fisheries Service in Long Beach must see the earbone test results, said Jim Lecky, assistant regional administrator for protected resources.

Those results will have to be backed up by so-far uncompleted DNA tests of the fish, Lecky said. Only then will the fish gain endangered-species protection, and the tollway agency would have to devise an accepted plan to protect the fish before toll-road construction could begin.