It's a Miracle Steelhead Even Survive the Journeyby Roger Phillips
Idaho Statesman, August 23, 2009
My head is still buzzing about the steelhead run coming over Bonneville Dam in the Columbia River.
It shows the amazing curveballs that steelhead and salmon can throw at us.
I try not let my steelhead obsession wear out its welcome, but runaway steelhead counts have me fixated.
If you haven't been following this year's run, here's a quick review:
Forecasters predicted 350,000 steelhead would cross Bonneville this year, the first of eight dams in the Columbia/Snake River system.
Those fish typically arrive in a classic bell curve starting in early summer and winding down in the fall, but this year the bell curve got rung.
About 162,000 fish crossed in a seven-day period, with each day topping the former record for the daily count since 1952.
My first reaction was pretty selfish: When can I go catch one with my fly rod? But there's something deeper that stirs my obsession with these amazing fish.
They have the most complex life cycle on the planet as far as I am concerned, and they are notorious for defying our predictions.
Humans can calculate the trajectory needed to land a spaceship on the moon, but predicting fish runs continually stymies experts even though they insert tiny electronic tags in the fish, ship them downstream in barges, and listen for them to cross acoustic sensors in the ocean.
Despite the techno-gadgets and complex computer modeling, the fish remain wild and unpredictable. This year is no exception.
Steelhead aren't the only wild card this year. Idaho's sockeye returned in the largest numbers since 1955.
But The Globe and Mail of British Columbia reported millions of sockeye "went missing" from the Fraser River. Between 10 and 13 million sockeye were expected to return, but only 1.7 million had arrived by mid-August, Canadian officials reported. They now figure the Fraser's sockeye run will be a fraction of their original predictions.
The unpredictable nature of steelhead and salmon should come as no surprise considering what they face between egg and adulthood.
Idaho's fish pass through a series of dynamic ecosystems.
Many start their lives in the cold mountain streams of the Salmon and Clearwater rivers and their tributaries, then pass through vast wilderness areas and into the glorified irrigation ditch/power canal known as the Snake River.
Then they hit the Columbia - that superhighway of fish and commerce - before essentially going off the radar for one to three years in the Pacific Ocean.
Any weak link in that habitat chain can decimate a run. Drought, floods, heat waves, irrigation diversions, pollution and other hazards can kill young smolts bound for the ocean, not to mention predators ranging from Arctic terns to ospreys to pikeminnow and smallmouth bass.
The ocean is no safe haven, either. They must elude fishing nets, trollers, sea lions, killer whales and many other things living and inanimate before returning to their home rivers.
But when steelhead and salmon have favorable conditions, populations can go nuts, which is happening this year.
Steelhead hit a near-perfect window of opportunity when environmental conditions and other factors lined up in their favor.
I like to see those big numbers coming back because it makes me believe that maybe, just maybe, we can coexist with these wonderful fish.
As an angler, my interest is partially self-serving, but I will only interact with a tiny percentage of this year's steelhead run.
I travel long distances and stand in cold rivers for hours casting for them with hopes of a single bite, and I may go days without one.
Typically, I fish for steelhead about a dozen times. In a good year, I will land about that many steelhead.
It's a lot of work for seemingly little reward, but when I consider the epic journey those fish have traveled in their short lives, it makes my efforts seem mild in comparison. And the rewards are much greater than what meets the eye.
I feel that raw power and fury a steelhead unleashes when it's hooked.
That's when the abstract respect I have for them becomes tangible as I witness the alchemy that Mother Nature formed into a fish that is hell bent on surviving and thriving despite all the obstacles we put in their path.
And that's what makes the challenge of steelhead fishing bearable and the reward so soul satisfying.
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