Interesting post SS. There is a tributary to the NF Stilly that I push back into during the lower summer flows. I used to be amazed at the 12+ inchers with clipped fins that I find back in there. Anymore, I can tell every time I hook one that it is going to be a clipped steelhead/rainbow. They pull like gang-busters and never quit. They are acrobatic and when finally bring them to hand they are gorgeous. I've pushed back in there at several different times of the year hoping and praying to find Wild Steelhead up in there but have never had it happen. I'm not surprised as this trib is above Deer Creek, still, I like to think that one day I might find them in there.
Stilly Stalker -
The best criteria for releasing smolts has been studied quite a bit. As one of the graphs in the presentations provided in links in the first post in this thread shows the wild smolts migrate over a fair period of time (from late March to mid-June with the peak migration in the 2nd or 3rd of May). As often is the case in the biological world there is a fair amount of variation year to year.
You are correct there always seems to be some hatchery smolts that want to leave early and begin actively crowding the ponds screens trying to leave. When those screens are pulled and the smolts are allowed to leave what typically seen is that 10 to 15% of the fish leave in a few days and then the out migration essentially stops until well into early May when there is pretty much a mass exit of smolts over 10 days or so. The State's guidelines call for some specific size and condition goals for the fish to be release and calls for the fish to be released in early to mid-May. On the whole the various studies as well as extensive experience has shown that following those guidelines result in the highest number of fish smolting and leaving the river in a very short period of time (often migrating from Marblemount to Mt. Vernon in just a couple days) as well as reducing the numbers of precocious males and hatchery fish that become resident fish.
Are those guidelines prefect? of course not but for most situations and most years on the whole it works the best. To my knowledge the various folks (HSRG, FEds, etc) that have reviewed those guidelines have endorsed them. Here on the north Puget Sound rivers there is an added benefit from the early/mid-May releases and that is the start of the spring run-off. On rivers like the Skagit some of highest average daily flows accure in May and June. The snow melt not only speeds the smolts on the way it also creates a difficult environment for those fish that do not smolt reducing the likelyhood that they will become residals.
For whatever reason it seems that the summer fish are more likely to produce a lower % of smolts than the winter fish.
I know what you're saying.... But smolt release timing is based on S. Washington, and not the northern rivers. Optimum SMS reads timing should be determined on a watershed to watershed basis. NO GENERALIZATIONS
Stilly Stalker -
Sorry I must of left the wrong impression. The guidelines based on the SW Washington info only confirmed what had been seen here in north Puget Sound for decades.
Justr a couple of example -
The small percentage of early leaving smolts I mentioned in my post was also seen on the Skagit (at Barnaby slough) were the portion leaving prior to the end of the first week of May was 10% (nearly all within a couple of days removing the screens).
During the 1980s while there still was a Snohmish basin winter steelhead creel census it was noticed that the return rates back to the Skykomish half of the basin (Reiter ponds) were consistently twice of that to the Snoqualmie half (Tokul Creek) as measured as total catches and hachery rack counts compared to the smolts released. The managers at the time had to wonder way. What they found was that the Snoqualmie/Tokul fish were consistently released at mid-April while the Skkomish/REiter were released in early/mid-May. When the release timing at Tokul were changed to mirror that of Reiter the return rates on the two halves of the basin were on the average more or less equal - later was better.
There are a number of other studies that show the same thing but to be fair this issue has long been a source of debate between hatchery personal and biologists.
At some point when all the information is saying the same thing generalizations work just fine.
Those precocious males have long been an issue with a number of hatchery programs. That can double so with wild brood stock programs (especially two year smolt programs). What folks have learned is that if the smolts get too large or grow too fast while young the resulting "smolts" will have a higher likelyhood of maturing early - the two year "smolts" may have mature precocious males before or at the time of release. Following the guidelines mentioned earlier helps to reduce the number of such fish.
Of course in a system like the Skagit I'm not sure what those precocious males would spawn with other than other hatchery fish. The precocious males should have the same spawn timing as the rest of the brothers and sisters. In the case of the Skagit winter steelhead that would be December and January. The very begining of the wild Skagit winter spawning curve is in early March with low spawning activity until much later in the spring. Pretty common for 90% of the total number of wild redds to be dug from late April to late July with the highest degree of redd building taking place in mid/late May.
What has happend to all the early native fish? Could the early run timming of hatchery fish have impacted them? I've heard of a study in the skagit system that showed 65-80% of winter steelhead were trib spawners, now I believe that has flipped. Could Chambers creek fish be predipossed to spawn in tribs? It's been shown in many studies that hatchery introgression reduces the fitness of offspring, so how many of those die and are never accounted for in the introgression studies?
While it is well accepted that there were/are substantial numbers of early wild steelhead in coastal rivers the case for early wild fish in the Puget Sound rivers and especially those of North Puget Sound is less documented. In fact the information that is available indicates that while the odd wild fish was and continues to found in rivers like the Skagit the vast majority of those fish returned later in the year.
Keep in mind it was not until the early 1950s that the old Game Department first achieved consistent success in getting hatchery produced steelhead to survive and return in appreciable numbers. And while many of us that fished the PS region in the 1960s, 70s, and early 80s recall with fondness the early season (Thanksgiving/early December) wild fish that we caught the data suggests that they were actually early 3-salt hatchery fish. Those fish were typically larger (10 to 14 pounds sometimes a bit larger) and returned earlier than the bulk of the 2-satl hatchery fish. Once the State began taking scale samples for the sport catch in various creel census it was found those early larger "wild" fish were from the hatcheries. Those fish disappeared in the mid-1980s with the mass marking of all the hatchery fish though we continued to catch some early season larger hatchery fish.
I have mentioned before Enos Bardner's book "Northwest Angling" published in 1950, like me suspect that some readers have a copy in their library. In Chapter 5 discusses the various Washington steelhead rivers giving discriptionof the rivers and their fishing. It is a good read and since the catch and timing information in his discussions come from his experience and punch card information from the 1940s (before the widespread success of the steelhead hatchery program) thus providing some insight into the timing of the various rivers runs. One word of caution at the time the typical winter steelhead season ran from December 1 through February with some of the larger lower river open after February so it should be no surprise that most of the fish were caught before March.
Chris one of the rivers in Bardner's book is the Nooksack (your home water?). He states -
"This river has one of the largest runs of winter fish in Washington and ranks 5th on the Game Department list. They are prime fish averaging 7 to 8 pounds with a few taken in the 15 to 19 pound class. The runs are late, with good fishing during February and in the lower river during the March opening...."
How does that run timing compare to what is seen today?
BTW - The Nooksack first recieved consistent plantings of hathcery steelhead in 1972.
In regard to the Skagit wild steelhead Bardner says -
"It is fished very little during December, but January is good, and the period from Washington's Birthday until the end of March is the best"
Sounds much like the Skagit I fished a decade ago.
After I spoke to you last year, I found a couple copies of Bradner's book @ powell's books in Portland. One was signed by the author so I bought it for $10.00, Great book.
I have seen some numbers that suggest earlier run timing ( Dec, Jan & Feb), and from my own experience, there are few fish until the end of Jan. Wouldn't those early fish be important for genetic diversity?
Please don't miss read what I'm trying to say/point out. Of course those early fish represent part of the diversity historically found in those North Sound population and as such they are important.
I was not saying that those early fish did not exist. Rather they were just a small portion of the total population (the old timers thought that there were not enough of them were in the Skagit in December to spend much time targeting them). As you and WW pointed out and my own fishing experience confirms (I have caught wild winters in the Nooksack as early as mid-December and the Skagit as early as early November) there still exist some early wild fish just that they represent a small portion of the over all wild population - just as they did historicially. Because we have little insight in what historic run numbers look like we really have not hard info on whether the poriton of early returning fish have decreased or not.
However what we do know is that important aspect of population diversity still exists. Further if the today's over all populations were much larger (habitat more similar to what was found historically and higher marine survivals) there would be lots more early fish. Additionally with those early fish and if the were significant advantages to be an early returning fish under current management in place (wild steelhead release all season) we would see increasing numbers of such fish.
I should stress that we are talking early run timing and not early spawn timing. In fact the early wild fish in north PS that I have had the opportunity to examine were all very immature sexually (almost summer run like) and likely would have spawn with a timing similar to their later arriving cousins.