decent numbers of hatchery fish should show up by the middle to end of december on most rivers, with wild fish showing in good numbers by february on the coast, and march in the sound (wild fish used to have a run timing centered around christmas, but overfishing has slowly shifted it later).
I have been planning my trip to the O.P. for natives this winter. All the people that I have been talking to and a few of the guides have told me that February is when the meat of the run starts in and all the way through march then it starts to tail off.
I don't know if there is much science to support -"wild fish used to have a run timing centered around christmas, but overfishing has slowly shifted it later".
Clearly the run timing of the wild fish runs vary from river to river and region to region. While there is some good evidence that there were significant numbers of wild winter steelhead on the coast in December to say that the run centered around Xmas is a stretch. Just as clearly there were brigth fish entering those rivers well into the spring.
In Puget Sound due to the long history of hatchery planting going back a century or so it is hard to get a true read on the wild fish timing. However because of the poor understanding of what was needed to produce a successful steelhead smolt it was not until the early 1950s that there were many returning hatchery fish in those systems. Based on what I have seen in our rivers in terms of wild fish and the conversations I have had with old timers that fish prior to World War II it is my opinion (inofrmed?) that the wild winter steelhead run timing on most Puget Sound streams were/are later than those on the coast.
While a few wild winter steelhead are still found as early as this time of the year (the earliest that I have got such fish is 11/4) the vast majority entered the river well after the first of the year. The old timers that taught me to steelhead fish fished the Snohomish system during the great depression. They were definitely fishing for food and to a person they all said that they would not waste their precious gas money by fishing prior to early January - they was not enough fish to justify them spending their money or time chasing them.
Typically the run timing of wild winter steelhead is a reflection of the spawning timing of that population. It has been my observation that typically (there is always exceptions) the fish want to show up on the spawning ground 6 weeks or more prior to spawning. The spawn timing is in turn a reflection of the hydrograph of the system. The spawning is timed so that the survival odds are stacked in favor of the emerging fry. One needs to look at the differences in hydrographs between the coast (rain fed systems) and north Puget Sound (snow run-off dominated) to understand there should be differences in spawning timing.
Curt- I will completely concede that it was a loaded statement...in fact, almost a provocation- But, it got what I wanted, which was a thoughtful and informative response from you! Much of what I said was based on a conversation I had with a biologist who was a presenter at the NOAA biological review team meetings about the potential listing of Puget Sound Wild Winter Steelhead.
This biologist obtained tribal catch data on non-stocked rivers from back in the 30's and before that showed peak catches around the end of december, and this was consistent for many systems. This is a complex subject, and I think you are right about flow regimes being deterministic for spawn timing for many of these fish (optimize emergence conditions for peak survival). However, many of the early spawning fish, probably were upper-basin and tributary spawners, which emerge in streams with very different flow regimes than the mainstem skagit or sauk for example (they often have earlier peak runoff). To say that sportfishing alone was responsible for this change, is not accurate....habitat degradation of tributaries like those I have described is also a culprit, but habitat destruction alone does not account for decreased abundance of early timed fish in systems with intact upper reaches and small spawning tributaries. Certainly the harvest intensity aimed at hatchery fish earlier in the season over the last several decades is possibly responsible for at least part of this shift in run timing.
TomB ..you are killing me ..what about the validation of Jack Daniels...? Never mind you know the Sh*t better than me. By the way ....are you one of those guys whi catch 95% of the fish or are you a regular fly-fella? (JK)
Thanks for the info you provide.
I think I have seen that tribal catch data you are referring to. As I recall it was from the coast. Also remember that it was catch data which probably is a better reflection of the fishing seasons than run timing. Historically tribal season lengths were driven as much by price as any other fact. Because steelhead had the highest value in the fresh fish market they tended to fish until there was another source of fresh salmon for the restaurant trade. In recent decades the first source of fresh salmon was the ocean troll fisheried that often opened in April. In the 1930s I would have expected that the commerical caught spring Chinook from the Columbia may well have been a factor which would have entered the market even earlier.
I'm not sure that "many of the early spawning fish, probably were upper-basin and tributary spawners..." hold true in the Norht Puget Sound region. The best example fo the upper basin/trib spawners would be the native summer steelhead. The information that I have seen (Deer Creek brood stock collection in the late 1940s and more recent spawning surveys) have shown that the summer steelhead spawning is from mid-March to mid-May - that is pretty much normal timed.
The wild winter steelhead found in the upper South Fork Sauk also provide some insight in this question. They are the highest/furtherest wild winter steelhead that I know of in Puget Sound. They migrate as much as 115 miles from the river's mouth and I have seen redds at just below 3,000 feet in elevation. Even at this remote area I was seeing as many as 7 redds/mile in the early 1990s. Interesting there were no steelhead in the area until well into the spring with the vast majority of the redds dug in the month of May.
The early wild winter steelhead (Novewmber to early January) that I have checked for sexaul maturity (from the Nooksack, Skagit and Snohomish systems) all were relatively immature fish (eggs skeins and eggs still less than fully developed). I would have judged that spawning was 3 or months away. I think that they myth of early wild fish being early spawners comes from the time (pre-1984) when the hatchery fish were not marked. Anglers often confused the early 3-salt hatchery fish with wild fish (based on size) - those fish of course would have been early maturing/spawning fish.
To answer your question,
We have allready seen a few hatchery brats here on the op. I generally start fishing for them about the second week of Nov and find the best of the run is over by x-mas. The wild fish still return well in Jan if you know where to look but the peak of the big fish run is indeed feb-march. Here is one thing however that tends to get ignored, people come here because they want BIG steelhead, which are always a posibility in the feb-march prime time. However there are probably more fish(although smaller) in the begining of April. April also often has lower warmer water which can make for better fly roding.
If you plan to fish the op make sure you make your trips at least 3 days, there is no way to cover enough ground to get a good feel in just 2.
In response to your asertation that Jack Daniels may not be an appropriate beverage to consume while fishing, wading, or rowing, I am afraid I must politly disagree. Furthermore I feel the need to mention that to sully the name of such a fine beverage with a long proud history of manufacture in the grand ol US of A without offering cause or justifacation is not only irisponsible, but may be of interest to homeland security.
As Smalma alluded to, good data are often hard to come by. I think Smalma hit the mark with the statement that a lot of early run wild steelhead - so classified - where actually hatchery fish before widespread marking occurred. I long ago reviewed historic steelhead catch data for both sport and tribal fisheries. Prior to widespread stocking of hatchery steelhead, peak sport catches on the coast and in Puget Soudn were in March. Tribal catched were often earlier in some rivers, and coincided on others. An important reason for that is because the former WDG did not allow off-reservation treaty Indian steelhead gillnetting from 1935 to 1973. Consequently, peak tribal catches on reservation coincided with peak run abundance. Peak tribal catches of steelhead off reservation tended to be by-catch that coincided with silver and chum salmon fishing.
The more context we have along with data, the better we can interpret the meaning of that data. Still, based on my observations of wild steelhead on the Skagit system, I'm convinced that the larger the run is allowed to become, and the less harvest pressure the wild fish experience, more of the run will enter the river earlier in the season, like January, pretty much reflecting what little we know of historic conditions and run timing.
This is the earliest documentation I could find that decribes the run timing of wild Steelhead, emphasis added by me.
"82. During treaty times the Nisqually Indians recognized separately and harvested the following species or races of anadromous fish: a) Tl'hwai (chum or dog salmon); b) Skowitz (coho salmon); c) Huddo (humpback salmon); d) Satsup (chinook salmon), To-walt (king or tyee salmon) were recognized as Satsup, the basis of distinction being size; e) Skwowl (steelhead). Their fishing techniques included trolling in saltwater, and nets, traps, weirs, gaffs, spears and hook and line in freshwater. Such fish were the Nisqually Indians' most important item of food. They were eaten fresh, were smoked and preserved, and were used for nonfood purposes such as glue base by the Nisqually Indians. The Nisqually Indians also identified several constellations of stars by reference to fish and fisheries. [FPTO § 3-58; Ex. USA-25, pp. 10-21a] The unpublished works of George Gibbs [**136] contain at least three notations of a fish trap or fish dam on the Nisqually River involving at least two separate locations. [FPTO § 3-61; Ex. USA-25, p. 22]
83. Dr. George Suckley, who reported information respecting salmon which he recorded from the Indians while he resided at Puget Sound between 1853 and 1856, reported that:
"* * * the salmon known to the Nisquallies as the skwowl, which I consider identical with the Klutchin of the Clallums, * * * arrives in the bays and estuaries of Puget Sound about the middle of autumn, and towards the first of December commences to run up the larger rivers emptying into the sound. Their ascent of these streams continue through December and January. This arrival of the species in fresh water is not as simultaneous, neither do they arrive in such great numbers at any one time or in 'schools,' as is the case with the skourtz and several other species, but the 'run' being somewhat more 'drawn out' affords a steady moderate supply to the Indians during its continuance."
He further recorded that, after the skwowl entered the rivers, they were taken by the Indians in nets, traps, baskets, and also by spearing. [FPTO [**137] §§ 3-55; 3-56; Ex. PL-50, p. 329; Ex. USA-25, pp. 15-16] "