I remember fishing this summer for Fall Chinook on the lower Columbia. As we held anchor in deeper water we watched the summer steelhead fishermen on the sandy banks, plunking for Steelhead. It was difficult however, to see someone kicking a native fish back into the water. I remember seeing one angler properly release a fish and literally felt the urge to clap. It was uncommon. It was sad. It reminded me that education has still got a long ways to go.
What is it about wild steelhead that makes them so appealing to anglers like me? Is it their resilient nature, their brawny strength, their graceful colors, epic runs, amazing acrobatics and stealthy migration? Maybe all of the above, either way there’s a special connection between fish and angler.
With a species that provides so much enjoyment and anticipation for anglers, comes responsibility. These big, ocean-going rainbow trout represent a beauty and balance that shows the spirit of the great Pacific Northwest. We’ve been blessed with water and habitat that is conducive to Steelhead and get to enjoy the chase of them near our back-porches!
Please take care. These fish are hardy, but they are not invincible.
Rules of handling fish:
- KEEP YOUR HAND OUT OF THE GILLS - This is huge! I see this in pictures, by the river…please don’t! Do not put your fingers inside of the gills or the gill plate. This is a very sensitive area and even though it’s an “easy” area to grab, it WILL kill a wild fish after release very quickly. This would be like someone picking you up by the lung – not fun. Only do this to fish you mean to kill. A fish for release should never have anything inside of it’s gills. Also take care that mud, sand or any other material does not wash into the gills.
- Hold that tail! Hold your fish horizontally, distributing their weight evenly between your hands (both hands!) You can apply a lot of pressure right above the tail without harming the fish, this should be where you hold the fish most firmly. Place your other hand along the underside of the fish (keeping hands out of gills) holding it firmly. Note the picture above for proper hand placement. Don’t hold a fish vertically in either direction.
- Keep it in the water – Getting a picture is great. I love to get photos of native Steelhead, however, do not compromise fish safety for a picture. Wear waders or get your feet a little wet and make sure that fish stays in the water for the majority of the time. If you lift them out of the water for a quick picture return them to the water immediately after. There have been many times where a good picture is just not feasible (a difficult, rocky bank or fishing alone) – in those cases, release the fish and put your camera away. You will have that memory forever and we’ll believe your story! In my opinion it’s more important to feel and enjoy the release of a wild fish than get a picture.
So what is the difference between a “native” and a “wild” fish? Basically the idea is this – natives are basically gene-specific to the river and have lived and reproduced there for generations. A “wild” fish is simply a steelhead that was reared in the wild, spawned from the gravel. Does this make a difference? No, it may for studies and specialists, but as anglers we are to release ALL Steelhead that have an adipose fin. If you live on a river that allows for the harvest of wild steelhead, I would urge you to release them.
Being a proper steward is a responsibility but it should also be the natural inclination of people that love the sport of angling. Thank you for doing your part to ensure more Steelhead get to their spawning gravel to make more big, native babies. Fish on!