Winter Steelhead ... Do they eat or don't they

Discussion in 'Steelhead' started by Stephen Rice, Dec 17, 2003.

  1. Stephen Rice

    Stephen Rice Senior Member

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    I have always been told when Steelhead enter a stream they no longer feed. well I was reading my insect book just yesterday by Dick Pobst and right in there where the Stoneflys are it says that these little fellas are an important food source for Winter Steelhead... huh ? what's up with that ?:dunno
     
  2. TomB

    TomB Active Member

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    In general the answer is no, however, after talking to several biologists, I was surprised to find out that upon checking the contents of winter steelhead stomachs, biologists have many times found salmon eggs, stoneflies, skulpins, whitefish, bait (i.e. shrimp, bait balls,etc.). The reason biologists would say that the steelhead don't eat though is because the items they have found in the stomachs have never shown signs of digestion. In feeding fish the stomachs always contain items in various states of digestion. This would indicate that winter steelhead many in fact swallow many sources of "food", but because they are no longer gaining any nutritional benefit, nor are able to, it is hard to call this behavior eating. It is also important to note that the vast majority of winter steelhead stomachs do not contain anything at all.
    -Tom
     
  3. Preston

    Preston Active Member

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    Define "eat". Winter steelhead certainly take things into their mouths and even swallow them. I've found objects in winter steelhead stomachs ranging from sticks and stones to an ouzel's wing. Do steelhead "eat", in the sense of consuming food as a source of energy? Pretty unlikely. Most fish, steelhead included, are bundles of instinctual responses; on their spawning runs they are primarily concerned with getting the job done but it would be surprising if the conditioned responses developed during three to five years of fresh and saltwater feeding didn't kick in at times. Another trait to consider is the increasingly agressive territorial instinct that will eventually lead the males to fight savagely on the redds. They will also chase and bite at smaller fish at the spawning sites (it's not unusual for resident rainbows to sneak in and try to fertilize freshly-laid eggs in the nest).

    There is simply not enough food in our coastal rivers to feed any number of steelhead. Like most Pacific salmons and even the Atlantic salmon, the steelhead's digestive tract atrophies during the spawning run while the fish survives on its stored fats. In fact, this is probably one of the primary reasons that salmon inevitably die after spawning and why only a small percentage of steelhead survive to spawn more than once. Sea-run cutthroat, on the other hand, feed throughout their spawning runs and recover easily once the task is accomplished. This allows a high percentage of them to return to the redds each year and to spawn on an annual basis. A twenty-inch cutthroat might be nine years old and spawning for perhaps the sixth or seventh time.
     
  4. Stephen Rice

    Stephen Rice Senior Member

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    Well in the Book I was reading. It was one of those little Orvis books. It says the stonefly is one of there "Primary food sources" I don't know if that would be defined as Eating. Some very interesting answers though ! I wonder how dead drifting a stonefly would work?
     
  5. Jay Allyn

    Jay Allyn The Poor-Student Fly Fisher

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    Summer steelhead defently will feed in rivers while I think winter steelhead bite more out of instict. After the spawn though, steelhead wander back to the ocean and will feed an their way. I've heard that they will try to eat anthing they can but, these fish are even more elusive and are only in the rivers for a couple days so we don't catch them very often.
     
  6. BOBLAWLESS

    BOBLAWLESS New Member

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    A. In the old days when fish clogged the rivers such that it was remarked that you could walk on their backs, how much food do you think it would take to feed them?
    B. Steelhead streams, like our lakes, are mostly sterile and have little or no real bug life; there is little or no food. It's always been so.
    Add A and B together.

    Bob, the Yea, I've found stuff in there. But so what?:rofl
     
  7. chadk

    chadk Be the guide...

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    Little or no food?? Try telling that to all the fat dollies, cutties, and bows that chow down on all the king, pink, chum, silver, steelie eggs adn flesh they'd ever want. When eggs and flesh are hard to come by, there is a good chance fry\smolt etc will be around for another smorgosborg (sorry - too busy to use spell checker lately...). Crawdads, sculpin, leeches, terrestrials, snails, larvae, nymhps, and the usual bug assortment are just in between snacks for some fish in many systems.

    I'm convinced salmon don't eat once they are a certain distance from the salt - depending on system. They don't need to since they will just be dying soon anyway.
    Steelhead i'm not 100% sure of. I've read a lot of theories - but haven't seen any hard facts. In many rivers and lakes I've fished, there are times of the year and other conditions in which the trout i've inspected had empty bellies. Maybe it is because of a period of short food supply, and the few morsals they do it are quickly digested to provide some energy. And of course when fish are in spawing mode, they eat well before and after, but not so much during (but strike out of regression and \or feeding instinct). Seems like steelhead may be just doing the same thing...
     
  8. troutman101

    troutman101 Member

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    Do the Steelhead that live in the Great Lakes have the same habit as Pacific Coast steelhead? Do they not feed either?
     
  9. Nailknot

    Nailknot Active Member

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    I've never cut open a steelhead to check the guts. But I know they will bite flies. :)

    Bob- I wouldn't say our steelhead streams are dead, far from it. Compared to the bounty of the ocean, however... even the dollies and cutts split for the salt to get the goods.
     
  10. Les Johnson

    Les Johnson Les Johnson

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    Some of the questions that appear on this BB might be well typed into Google and then hit search. There is a lot of accurate information available on most subjects including the freshwater feeding habits of steelhead.
    Good Fishing,
    Les Johnson
     
  11. troutman101

    troutman101 Member

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    Oh come on Les, spill the beans!

    I know you have forgotten more than one could remember in a lifetime so help us out man!

    BTW, nice avatar name.."searun" says it all.
    :beer1
     
  12. Bob Triggs

    Bob Triggs Stop Killing Wild Steelhead!

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    I would think that stoneflys, as well as most other acquatic organisims, are heavily preyed upon by steelhead throughout their developmental life in the rivers, from the gravel as fry and right on through until they smoltify and run to the estuary and to sea. And I am sure they would feed on those same organisims after their spawning cycle is complete, as kelts etc.

    Though they are not generally feeding in the proper sense, it has been a pretty long held observation that these fish do often take these same organisims during their spawning cycle. Summer run fish seem to do this even more so. Perhaps that is due to a higher water temperature, and subsequently higher metablic rate in these fish, which might mean they would be more reactive.

    But if you ask them they all say the same thing:

    "I don't know why I swallowed the fly".

    And most truthful anglers will admit:

    "Neither do I".
     
  13. Swinger

    Swinger Banned or Parked

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    The following was taken from PP (http://www.piscatorialpursuits.com/ubb/ultimatebb.php?ubb=get_topic;f=1;t=015886#000012)

    Over the years I have found stuff in the stomachs of a several dozen different steelhead, both winters and summers.

    I also can report finding odd late summers/early winters with the chums eggs (usually a handful in their stomachs). The first couple years that the NF Stilly was open in November (years ago most rivers used to close at the October and re-open December first) the hot bite was the first deep water below the spawning chums - interesting enough the fish would take virtually any fly we showed them.

    Other food items I have seen in their stomachs include egg clusters, various pieces of sand shrimp, a whole 6 inch spot shrimp, periwinkles, mayflies, grasshoppers, and a sculpin. The interesting thing about all the food items is that I have never seen anything in the fish's stomach that I could not identify, everything look fresh and whole. When one looks at the contents of most feeding fish's stomachs such as a trout most of the items are in some state of parial digestion - not so with steelhead, at least in my experience.

    It appears to me that once the fish are in the river their digestive processes shut down and even if they happen to swallow something they gain little or no benefit from it. This is further support by an experiment at Reiter in the 1980s were the summer brood stock were taught to feed on trout pellets (had to put several trout in with them which seem to teach the steelhead to feed). The thinking was that if the steelhead would feed their condition could be maintained until spawning 6 to 10 months later. Even though they seem to eat with vigor there was no corresponding increase in the condition of the fish at spawing. When the fish were killed at spawning they had no more fat - that to say none then when the fish were not feed. Thus it continues to be my belief that while the fish may occassional swallow an item or two they are not really feeding.

    Other items have included various feathers, including a whole water dipper, pebbles, twigs, leaves, and one that had two pearl shirt buttons - how one fish found two different buttons I could never figure out but perhaps a button thread on a leader might be the next hot lure!!

    Tight lines
    Smalma
     
  14. Long_Rod_Silver

    Long_Rod_Silver New Member

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    Did i hear someone say that mature steelhead don't feed?


    A paper called "Feeding by mature steelhead (Salmo gairdnerii gairdnerii) in the spawning stream"
    written by D. Burns in 1974 for the California Fish-Game (vol. 60, no. 4, pp. 205-207) states that:
    "Examination of the stomach contents of 83 mature steelhead trout from 2 tributaries of the Sacramento River in California, caught between Oct 1969 and Jan 1971, is reported. Only 4 of the stomachs examined were empty. Trichoptera formed the major constituent with aquatic plants the second most abundant item. The average amount of material in each stomach was small but it is a definate indicator of feeding activity in these fish that have spent at least 1 summer in the ocean. "

    :D
     
  15. Swinger

    Swinger Banned or Parked

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    You are comparing apples to oranges. California steelhead exhibit very differant behavior traits then their more northern cousins.