What happend to the steelhead in Washington?


Well-Known Member

Several things have happened to steelhead in WA. And it's not the same things in the same proportions throughout their range in this state. There are five separate steelhead eco-regions in WA when you think of how the watersheds work and the factors affecting steelhead productivity and survival. The regions are: Puget Sound, N. Coastal, S. Coastal, lower Columbia River, and the Columbia River upstream of Bonneville Dam (the lowermost dam on the mainstem Columbia).

Steelhead runsizes are presently averaging between 5 and 10% of their estimated levels in the 1850-1895 time period, with some populations even lower. Nearly all populations are adversely affected by logging, roads, and urban and rural development across all the regions. Puget Sound populations are additionally significantly affected by dike and levee systems, dams on about 8 rivers, and very likely over-fishing on some Hood Canal rivers. Occasional water pollution of rivers is likely, and it's equally likely that the over-all effect in minor at most. These factors have collectively reduced stream productivity, capacity, and population diversity. Managing wild and hatchery steelhead in aggregate negatively affected wild runs until the mid-70s, but over-harvest is not been a proximate cause of the current status of almost all the individual runs. Puget Sound steelhead populations appear to be affected by low marine survival, significantly lower than coastal steelhead and even lower than Collumbia River populations, which is a reversal of what we know of historic survival trends. Presently, Puget Sound steelhead smolts, which average around 8 fish per pound and surviving at less than one percent to the returning adult stage. Contrast that with the small pink salmon which smolts and goes to the ocean at the tiny size of about 1200 smolts per pound, and they are currently surviving to the adult stage at three to five percent. In a world where we understand size directly correlates with survival, something has gone totally lop-sided here.

Coastal rivers are affected mainly by the first three factors described above. The main difference between the N. and S. coastal rivers is that the N. coast rivers have their headwaters in a national park and thereby the habitat is more protected than that of the S. coast rivers. S. coast rivers were the last to receive any wild steelhead protection, so they might still be affected by over-harvest. Same with lower Columbia River tributary steelhead, with some more dams thrown into the adverse effects list mix.

Steelhead populations upstream of Bonneville Dam are affected sorta' roughly in proportion to the number of dams they have to cross - first going downstream as smolts and again going upstream as adults. These populations also have the greatest amount of hatchery steelhead genetic introgression, making the plight of wild steelhead in this region just a bit more difficult.

While the 4 Hs - hatcheries, harvest, hydro, and habitat are frequently listed as the cause of decline of steelhead and salmon, the present effects of each varies significantly from population to population. Over-harvest is presently the least of the problems for wild steelhead in WA. Harvest by non-treaty commercial and recreational fisheries is strictly controlled and hasn't posed a significant threat in years. And while treaty fisheries typically harvest more wild steelhead than non-treaty fisheries, they are not a limiting factor to steelhead habitat productivity or capacity, but may affect diversity to a measurable degree. Many fishermen attribute the poor status of wild steelhead to treaty Indian fishing, but you won't find one single biologist who is familiar with the data and the situation of these fisheries who agrees with that. If you do, I'll buy you the drink of your choice.

Returning once more to Puget Sound steelhead, the loss of fish during the early marine life history phase must be due to pollution, disease, or predation, or some combination of these. If there is another factor, we haven't a clue what it is. As some posts have noted, a number of predator species have increased in abundance. Couple that with a reduction in species like eel grass and kelp that are associated with the production of some food species, as well as providing cover for juvenile fish, and it's possible that a significant reduction in key forage has occurred coinciding with increased predation due to diminished cover. This is an untested hypothesis on my part, but one must begin somewhere if there is going to be an answer to what has happened.


Salmo g.
Salmo: Is it possible that the pink salmon population has contributed to the decline in Puget Sound Steelhead? Makes sense from the perspective of finite food sources for them.


Geriatric Skagit Swinger
To much talk and not enough walk! When it's time to vote, make your vote count!
My vote does count...unfortunately it only counts once.

I would like to report some missing steelhead. Where and to whom, exactly, would I do that? Will we get some detectives on the case? Maybe some US Marshalls or FBI dudes? Nothing ever happens until the badges start being flashed.

What? No badges!

So I'm thinking...next time I re-up for my fishing license there is really no need to get the steelhead endorsement. The only valid steelhead fishing I've done in the past two years is in E. WA. And the river is full of small mouth bass, trout, whitefish, suckers, etc. Steelhead are mainly a bycatch...in fact I caught more bass than steelhead...so I guess I was bass fishing. And if by some measure of bureaucratic blunder my home river does open up I guess I'll get an endorsement then.


Well-Known Member

It's possible that the pink salmon abundance has contributed to a decline in PS steelhead, but I doubt it. The two species do overlap some in their ocean migrations, but the general shape of the migration circles differs enough that I'm skeptical of pinks being the culprit. I think pinks contribute more in marine derived nutrients to the freshwater environment than any adverse marine effect they may cause, but that is just my hunch, supported by nothing more than the general differences in the two species' marine migrations.



Active Member
What I find so amazing is how much time, money, effort, money, gas, money, travel, money, planning, money, energy, money, talk... and money, we spend chasing down, casting to, outfitting for, gearing up, arguing over, dreaming of... a fish that, for all practical purposes- apparently doesn't exist.

Gotta go. No more time to type. Gotta get ready to hit the river first thing in the morning!


Active Member
i don't fish for them any longer, period. have wonderful memories of over 3 decades of steelhead from many different drainages. great fishing, good friends, fun times were had. now, well i can still take you to a pile up of hatch jobs ripe for the taking but the west end, from my perspective, is not worth the effort. now if the tribal nets were to come out, you bet, things would probably be quite different but that is not going to happen until there is absolutely nothing left to net.

sub-tropic is the name of the game for me at this point in time. CR is the place with the right attitude regarding fishing and available big challenging fish on the fly.

Old Man

Just an Old Man
While all above is true. You all have to realize that we all like to bitch as it is the nature of man. If one didn't bitch, one would blow up.

Me, I like to bitch about the weather. Which by the way it snowed again last night.

But I fish for the fun of it and I guess that you could say that catching fish is a by-product of having that fun. Some people like to catch and eat fish. But I only eat fish if it is like in a sandwitch.



Fly Fishing guide "The Bogy House" Lodge
I personally feel that there are three basic regions of steelhead and a few sub regions. Each region has had its problems and most have been pointed out here.
Three things reduce steelhead runs, harvest, poor ocean conditions and inefficient habitat. Great ocean survival can over come the other two with good runs entering the rivers.
Harvest by Gillnets can destroy even the best of runs because they are so unselective and unsustainable.
Habitat will reduce a run to a fraction of its former self BUT can be repaired as we see happening across the state since the 90's.
The big problem with Puget Sound runs are Fish Farms, they swim past and die at sea, and we are allowing it to happen in BC and Washington, that is what I personally feel is a problem with Puget Sound Steelhead. Fortunately that can be remedied also we just need the POLITICAL balls to do it.
Every river that has lost its fishable steelhead runs are inside Puget Sound, Even the Columbia with all its Dams supports huge runs or Salmon and Steelhead (comparatively)
The Puget sound fish run past fish farms, they are the worst off of all Regions, if it was more of a habitat issue there would be a Plato of loss and then a cycle of ocean survival. The Puget Sound fish are being killed by something NOT determined yet, I think its Fish Farms.
Combined with other formerly mentioned problems and we have what we have unfishable numbers when every other Region is doing good.


Active Member
For our Puget Sound rivers there is no doubt that we as a society have opted to use most of those river's potential to produce wild steelhead (and other anadromous fish) for uses other than fishing/fish abundances. Those choices are reflect in severely degraded freshwater habitats. There is little doubt that today that potential is but a small fraction of what it was historically (various estimates places the current potential at 2 to 20% of what it once was). Further it is equally clear that as a society we will continue to make those sort of decisions until there is so few wild steelhead fish that allowing fishing for them will not be allowed.

It is also equally clear that as a whole PS steelhead populations are currently far below the current average productivity potential given the freshwater habitat conditons. By far the largest driver in limiting that productivity potential is marine survival. That reduced marine survival is best illustrated by tracking smolt to adult survivals which currently is approximately 10% of what was seen during the early/mid 1980s.

The above two issues are so large in their impacts (especially working togehter) that they essentialy render the other factors mentioned (harvest, hatcheries, etc) almost meaningless in the big picture

To date I'm convinced that largest mistake made by both the managers and anglers is a failure to recognized the cyclic nature of such factors as marine survival - that fact that steelhead production is dynamic/constantly changing and not static. There is good evidence that seeing survival cycles between good and poor conditions lasting decades is the norm and further we are in depths of poor cycle.

The big question should be is how will the populations weather this survival storm and what management choices can be made to add that survival. Clearly the largest safety net for the various populations would be productive freshwater habitats but we as a soceity have effectively taken that off the table. Some of the more commonly suggested actions include -

HARVEST - across Puget Sound harvest levels have been reduced over the pass 30 years until the last decade the fishing impacts on wild steelhead across Puget Sound is in the 4% range. Is that low enough (adding significant risk to the populations?)? If not where do further cuts come from and what will be the benefit?

HATCHERY - Again the potential for interactions between hatchery and wild stocks on Puget Sound Rivers have been reduced over the last 30 years. with each reduction wild steelhead survivals have fallen. The next step would be the elimination of all hatchery fish (and all steelhead fishing). Are any benefits from that change worth the cost (no fishing)?

DIVERSITY -For Puget Sound rivers there appears to have surprising little lost in adult diversity (run timing, spawn timing, age structure). There clearly has been a loss of life history diversity (resident/anadromous etc) which may be a key factor for the species during these periods of low marine survival.

FISH FARMS - There is some good information that they have affected local populations of pink salmon but it is hard to argue that they are a signinficant problem for Puget Sound stocks. As we all know we are currently seeing increasing returns of pinks with near recorded or record returns to the region. In regards to steelhead they are by far much larger smolts than (pinks and larger than any of the salmon) meaning they can tolerate much larger parasite lots than say pinks. Further their migration patterns are such to greatly reduce interactions from fish farms - they migrate in deeper water away from the shallow water locations of most net pens, generally migrate quickly through interior waters reducing exposure time, and for Puget Sound steelhead the majority (all?) of the smolts leave the region via the Straits (away from those BC net pens).

PUGET SOUND EARLY MARINE SURVIVAL - Recent studies have shown that something like half of the steelhead smolts leaving our rivers do not survive to reach Neah Bay. It is unclear whether this outside of the norm. It is to be expected that there would be a high mortality of those smolts after they leave the river. They are the smallest size they will be while in the salt, they are moving into a very different environments require different behaviors (both for foraging and predator avoidances) and physiological demands.

IMHO it is hard to make harvest, hatcheries, or fish farms the smoking gun for the current status of Puget Sound steelhead. With diversity there is developing information that the lost of life history diversity (resident form) could be key - they could well provide a population safety net for the species in the various rivers and this issue needs further thought and actions. The importantance of that high early smolt mortality in Puiget Sound is somewhat unclear but surely needs continued study.

Anyway after much though on this issue the above is my long winded response to the question "What happened to Puget Sound Steelhead".

Tight lines


Active Member
i would certainly vote in favor of closing down ALL steelhead hatcheries followed by closing down steelhead fishing statewide. we are past the time of self sustaining stocks of wild steelhead. all harvest of steelhead needs to be stopped, commercial as well as sport.


Joe Streamer
Thanks Curt, as usual, for your complete and science-based explanation. I'm with GT: Close the hatcheries, close commercial fishing and close sport fishing until we see if they can recover. I for one have stopped fishing for them.
What I find so amazing is how much time, money, effort, money, gas, money, travel, money, planning, money, energy, money, talk... and money, we spend chasing down, casting to, outfitting for, gearing up, arguing over, dreaming of... a fish that, for all practical purposes- apparently doesn't exist.

Gotta go. No more time to type. Gotta get ready to hit the river first thing in the morning!
What a great point.

While all above is true. You all have to realize that we all like to bitch as it is the nature of man. If one didn't bitch, one would blow up.

Me, I like to bitch about the weather. Which by the way it snowed again last night.

But I fish for the fun of it and I guess that you could say that catching fish is a by-product of having that fun. Some people like to catch and eat fish. But I only eat fish if it is like in a sandwitch.

OMJ pulls through again. Bitching about the weather is great, you can never bitch enough.

Fishing with people who only want a meal, get on my nerves. Go to Mcdonalds and get some McDoubles. I'm more C&R than ever, but I also believe in keeping a trout every now and then, or a female humpy to smoke and give the roe to my bait fishing buddies.

People put too much money into fishing. Almost like they think it's upping their chances. This is not the case. I am living proof that you can fish, and even fly fish, on a dime. When people put all these hordes of money into fishing, they get that much more pissed off when they get skunked. I caught my first fish since November last week. And I've been fishing ever since. Guess it's just luck, and my luck should be raising soon.

There's a reason it's called fishing and not catching!!

Edit: Yes, I know this it totallly irrelavent to the subject at hand.


Active Member
I fished in the 70's and 80's for steel and saw the decline of fish when "elninyo" sorry for the spelling - moved in and warm waters moved clear up to alaska whipping out most of the food source for steelhead that migrated north , the winter runs declined so bad during this time i quit fishing for them in the late 80's . now the summer runs that migrated south to the california coast line were fine , and just got better !

In the 90's there were some press releases of canadian netters taking up to 70 to 90 percent of the migrating fish from the northern usa ! we signed some treaties with them to stop netting of our fish and this worked for awhile . a lot of the time i think we are doing everything we can to help with waters and fish inland in both oregon and washington , in the early 80's it was common to see schools of fish in 50 to 100 fish , but we planted 275 thousand fish a year in my local river in oregon , in which now we only plant 100,00 brood stock fish so returns have gone down . we have taken rivers in oregon and stopped planting them for over 10 to 15 years and their NATIVE runs have not rebounded any ! the trask -n- mollala rivers to name a couple !

in those days there were not that many good fly fisherman or regular gear fisherman , now with the internet people learn very fast how to take fish . now give that technology to the netters in the ocean and columbia and you have the same .

I feel if we hand put 1,000,000,000 smolt in the ocean and they are not allowed to return then we have no fish . i believe we are funding the world with food for all our efforts and getting nothing for it !
i only fish over the columbia steelhead now , hard not to with returns of 600 thousand a year returning over the first dam on the columbia , then i targeted the silvers this last year over the dam and we were getting 20 a day untill the small mess nets went in and it was whipped out in one day !!! and just kept netting untill nothing was left going over ! ive come to think - why do we put some much into fish we have so little control over and so little into trophy trout in both oregon and washington ? we have control over what happens with these fish and could have awesome fishing for these fish with very little effort or money compared to the billions being spent feeding the world ! just my two cents !!!