If my own views aren’t enough, I also have consulted with other guys who have similar experiences as myself, and we all have came to the same conclusion.
Bill Wobbekind with a wild Michigan steelhead hooked with a swung fly.
"Here we go Again.” Groaning to myself, knowing that I shouldn’t read any further, but like a good train wreck, it was impossible to look away. A friend of mine sent me a piece on why Great Lakes rainbows should not be referred to as steelhead, because by doing so, it disrespects the wild West Coast steel-head population. I predicted where it was leading, because I have seen this movie several times before. The author cited different definitions from various sources in an attempt to prove that they are two separate species. His strongest defense was that steelhead are anadromous fish, meaning that they live their adult lives in salt water and return to spawn in fresh water; thus, Great Lakes fish do not meet this definition.
As a long-time Midwest steelhead fanatic, I don’t see what the big deal is as to what these magnificent fish are titled—and to me, it’s just rhetoric. I guess it must be important to some of the West Coast steelheaders, because this debate has been going on for as long as I can remember, and it doesn’t appear to be getting settled any time soon. I have met several people over the years who share the same sentiments and opinions that this particular author was expressing. Mind you, most of the guys that I have talked to have admitted that they have never fished east of the Missouri River and probably never will, but they still feel that it is necessary to defend the honor of what they believe is a true steelhead. I can get behind that sort of passion because I love steelheading as much as anyone and will promote the sport whenever I can.
These fishermen are willing to go to the mat arguing that the Great Lakes steelhead is an inferior imitation to its West Coast cousin and shouldn’t be categorized as a steelhead because it doesn’t spend the majority of its life residing in the vast ocean dodging creatures that can eat it. I agree that this vulnerability has created superior genes in the ocean-living steelhead and that the Great Lakes rainbow couldn’t possibly have developed the strong survival instincts while cruising around in a giant freshwater fish tank. The relatively safe environment and living at the top of the food chain may have ultimately created a weaker breed of animal, referencing Darwinism in its purist form. I admit that the most detrimental predator that a Great Lakes fish has to avoid is a well-placed planer board trolled along a temperature break, but that shouldn’t detract from the fish’s status or from the fishermen who wish to pursue it.
What’s a Midwestern angler to do, forgo fishing for a fish, because it’s supposedly not as worthy of an adversary as God intended for it to be? There is a saying in sports that a team shouldn’t be criticized for beating weaker opponents, because that team can only play who’s in front of it. I know that there are several Great Lakes enthusiasts who would love to fish some of the legendary West Coast rivers that support wild steelhead runs, but because they are logistically challenged to be able do so very often, are limited to fishing the water that is available to them.
This leads to a second part of the recurring dispute. West Coast steelheaders like to point out to their midwestern brethren that since the Great Lakes only support runs of hatchery fish (or naturally produced rainbows from hatchery descendants), G.L. fishermen don’t know what it’s like to catch an authentic, wild steelhead. They claim that this disqualifies a Midwestern metalheader from forming a legitimate conclusion about wild steelhead.
I think we can agree that the Great Lakes do support natural reproduction in some of their tributaries. These steelhead are most likely descendants from hatchery origins at some point in history, and I have spent a great deal of my life walking and floating those streams targeting those fish. I have been fortunate enough to have caught my share of wild fish from the Great Lakes streams, and I can tell you that these fish are formidable opponents for any caliber of steelheader. But what do I know, right? I’m just a Midwestern river rat trying to defend my backyard. I, myself, do have some experience fishing West Coast rivers in Washington, British Columbia, and Southeast Alaska. In fact, I have been fortunate enough to probably have tussled with as many wild steelhead in the Last Frontier over the past two decades than the average fisherman has who only fishes for steelhead in the lower forty-eight rivers in that same amount of time. Hell, it’s Alaska, one of the few places in the world that has healthy returns of wild fish. The insane number of hook-ups you can experience in a good week of fishing can cause the stats to get pretty gaudy. I believe this qualifies me to have formed an accurate opinion about the West Coast versus the Great Lakes wild steelhead controversy.
If my own views aren’t enough, I also have consulted with other guys who have similar experiences as myself, and we all have came to the same conclusion. Without hesitation or any doubt, wild, ocean-run steelhead compared to Great Lakes naturally produced steelhead are, yes, a better fish! I’m sure no one is surprised with the outcome, but the results are closer than you might think. So, there you go my West Coast brothers—a Great Lakes dude finally comes clean and admits that Midwest steelhead are inferior to Pacific steelhead. Case closed. Cue the band and drop the confetti.
The author with a wild West Coast steelhead.
Okay, the party is over. I just want to be clear, the West Coast steelhead does not jump any higher, swim any faster, smash a lure any harder, or behave more psychotic than their Great Lakes counterpart. I’ve caught countless numbers of chromers, as well as numerous dark fish, on both sides of the continent and in every degree of water temperature that steelhead can endure, and what separates them boils down to one word, STAMINA! Steelies returning from saltwater have the gonads that that Great Lakes fish can only dream about. Pacific steelhead don’t know when to give up. I rarely have to net a fish at home, preferring to beach it whenever possible. However, whenever I’m fishing a West Coast stream, I find it better to corral the steelhead in a rubber net and unhook it in the water as opposed to sliding it on to a gravel bar. It’s just too damned tough.
Now that you West coast steelheaders are basking in the sun, I’m going to throw a little shade your way. Even though the West Coasts steelhead’s fighting ability wins hands down, I have found that the Great Lakes wild Chinook salmon fighting capabilities are pound for pound comparable to a Pacific king salmon, although I must admit that my conclusions are based on only one week of fishing on the world-famous Nushagak river in Alaska. During that week, my fishing partner and I hooked between sixty to ninety salmon a day. If you calculate the numbers, then I would consider that a pretty good sample of fish. Except for a handful of exception-ally large kings, the salmon averaged about the same size (i.e, five to twenty-five pounds) as the ones that return to the Great Lakes rivers. We also periodically used our Great Lakes salmon gear that we brought from home, which accounted for dozens of kings brought to the boat that week. By using our own equipment, it leveled the playing field, giving us an accurate comparison between the two species. Remember, the salmon in the Great Lakes come from relatively recent West Coast bloodlines, so it shouldn’t be a surprise that the fish possess similar fighting abilities. So, if it’s acceptable to use the “Nush” fish as a sample group to compare the salmon between the two regions, then I would have to declare a draw. Again. I’m not trying to build up or downplay anyone’s fish. I just want to describe my experience. It’s not a slight against the Pacific king salmon as much as it is a compliment to the Great lakes Chinooks. Both of them are tremendous adversaries. Of course, the Great Lakes salmon don’t grow into the big bruisers like some of the fish that return to many of the West Coast rivers, but in life, size still matters.
So, do I think the fishing world needs to refrain from referring to Great Lakes rainbows as a steelhead or by either placing an asterisk after the word steelhead, or by placing a “Great Lakes” modifier in front of the word steelhead? No, I don’t think so. I will continue to call them steelhead, because they are still the most explosive, dynamic fish that swims in North America. It doesn’t matter if you are fishing the Olympic peninsula in Washington or the lower peninsula in Michigan, because when you hook into one, it will give you everything you can handle. Some of them are just going to punch a little harder and fight a little longer.
Now, if anyone still feels the need to rail on the Great Lakes program, then I’m going to give you some ammunition on a silver platter. These issues are near and dear to my heart, and I’ve been beefing about them for decades, so here it goes. First, I don’t understand why Great Lakes wild steelhead are treated like a stocked rainbow trout in a put and take fishery? For example, Michigan, a state that has streams that host natural reproduction, allows anglers to kill three steelhead, wild or hatchery fish, per day. Yes, that’s not a misprint. You can legally slaughter that many of God’s creatures that will procreate the species. And if that’s not grotesque enough, a person can legally kill five fish a day in the other three states that boarder Lake Michigan. To put things in perspective, think about some of the streams that are still holding on to the slight remnants of a wild steelhead run. Each fisherman is allowed to attack those streams and to permanently remove three fish that are capable of reproducing. Can you imagine if that was permitted on West Coast rivers? Think of the melees that would ensue when-ever someone decides to bonk a fish sporting a rudder on its back. The local jail would be running at full capacity every time a river drops into shape. I personally don’t think there are too many people keeping that many wild steelhead very often, especially a seasoned river fisherman, but the opportunity to do so shouldn’t exist period. Midwestern DNRs would rather protect the emerging smallmouth bass fishery by enforcing strict regulations and size limits, rather than to protect a wild steelhead.
The second thing that troubles me is why it’s an acceptable practice for anglers to target spawning fish on the Great Lakes streams that have natural reproduction. It’s not only the casual, uninformed fishermen that doesn’t realize that ethics are being compromised, but there are some professional guides, ones whose living depends on healthy returns of fish, who insist on fishing for bedding fish. Their game plan is to specifically search out active spawning beds. Upon spotting an active bed, they will position their clients above the bed and instruct them to flip flies or toss hardware at groups of spawning fish. Both foul hooking and flossing run rampant on the Great Lakes tributaries during the spawning season. Some fish are hooked repeatedly, and it’s not uncommon to see fish wallowing around on the gravel with multiple lures and flies adorning their bodies. Even if some fish are legitimate biters, so what? Why would anyone want to harass a creature that is at its all-time physically worst condition, and in the case of a salmon, within a few days of dying? These so called “sportsmen” brag about how powerful these fish are, when in fact, they are, in many cases, tugging on a breathing, rotting carcass. To be fair, most of the fishermen that fish the beds do release the fish, but that shouldn’t be an excuse because, those fish have become exhausted, which increases their mortality rate. I believe that there is a moral obligation to leave a fish alone once it engages in the act of spawning.
So, if you are one of those guys who still feel the need to disparage the Great Lakes fishery then I say, bring it on, because it’s entertaining listening to the different opinions shared throughout the steelheader community. You will discover that most of the thoughts are insightful, while other ideas can be provocative. Then there are some things that can only be responded to by a “WTF” but still can have a shred of validity. At first, you might adamantly disagree with a certain point of view, but after some careful consideration, it might just start making some sort of sense. I think that it is essential that everyone comes together in the best interest of the sport. It’s detrimental when someone refers to something as “our fish” or “their problems,” because the issues are universal, and the only differences among steelheaders should be where they fish or what techniques they choose to use. The hot button topics need to be addressed by all sports fishermen, so it doesn’t make sense to alienate one half of the group. And if you still feel the need to complain about someone else’s fishery, then I recommend going after the musky world. Those guys are nuts!
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I fished the rivers of WI, MN and MI for many years before moving to the West Coast where I have fished from Sacramento, CA to Forks WA and on both sides of WA and OR. In all areas the average fish across the years has been in the 6-10lb class. But run timing, water temp, river type and spawning condition vary widely so comparisons are broad to say the least. Winter rivers I fish range from about 40-48 most of the winter. In the Midwest some rivers the temps could be at and even slightly below freezing no fish can show its best at those temps. Also not many Midwest rivers have class II-V rapids hook a hot fish that turns sideways to the current above one of those and see what happens. Come March/April most fish in both areas are getting close to or are spawning again not prime time for comparisons. I refer you to an article written by Jim Bedford about the hardest fighting steelhead. I agree with his comparisons. A fresh fall Midwest steelhead compares very favorably with a fresh run PNW summer steelhead. Both fish are in their prime months away from spawning the water temps are perfect and when the PNW summer runs start showing in late May thru June the winter flows have greatly subsided. Of course fish vary some are hot and others fight like a wet gym sock. I look forward to your next article about the fight of hatchery vs wild steelhead.