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Fishereies Science


Thoughts From John McMillan- Salmon & Steelhead Part 2

Continued from part 1 via the Instagram account of Keepemwet Fishing Science Ambassador John R McMillan. @rainforest_steel


Here we have a very simple statistical model that evaluates the relationship between variation in annual run size and the total number of life histories in each species. Of note, I changed the juvenile life histories from one to two to include yearling coho smolts, which I assume exist to some degree in the Skagit, based on a suggestion by @fisherfreak. Thanks! Someone else raised that same point to me about a year ago, in which case the total number of life histories for #cohosalmon increases from 3 to 6. I needed to standardize the variation in annual run sizes so I calculated the Coefficient of Variation (CoV) for each species annual run sizes over the period of record, which is represented by the 1-100% scale on the bottom (x-axis). The CoV tells us how much run sizes disperse from the mean run size. The higher the percentage, the more variation in run size there is from year-to-year (think pinks). The lower the percentage, the less the variation. On the vertical (y-axis) scale is the total number of life histories for each species. I used a simple regression model that allows for non-linear relationships (which just means the association does not have to be straight, or linear, and can curve). The solid black line represents the best fit of the model, and it was a very strong fit, with total number of life histories explaining 85% of the variation in run size. All this means is: Life history diversity among salmonids (in this data set at least) in the Skagit is strongly linked to how much run sizes vary from year-to-year. The theme is pretty consistent with steelhead, diversity matters, a lot. It is their evolutionary calling card, just like home runs were for Barry Bonds, steals were for Ricky Henderson, and 100 mph fastballs were for Nolan Ryan.


Wrapping up the first part of the discussion here on steelhead life histories. As mentioned previously, they display the most life histories of any salmonid. Up to 32-38, and that does not even include repeat spawners. As smolts, most steelhead spend 1-4 years in freshwater before migrating to the ocean. However, they have found fish as old as 7 migrating to the ocean! It suggests that some fish are maturing as rainbow and then going out to the ocean to become a steelhead. Shape shifters. And once they get to the ocean, some fish spend only a month or two, while others may spend up to five consecutive years. The result of this diversity is an incredible array of ages at maturity. Some steelhead will mature by age-2, others not until age-9. Consequently, we have mature steelhead ranging from little ones as small as 2lbs to huge fish that tip the scales beyond 40lbs. Given all this diversity it is not surprising that biologists and anglers were long confused about what a steelhead actually was, and the delineation of species was further muddied by the inclusion of resident rainbows (which I have not yet touched on). Steelhead have so many choices in life history they are basically like a Baskin Robbins or a Costco. Options, options, options. Or, think of them like a leatherman tool, while species like pink are a phillips head screwdriver – not many options with the last, and if the environment in a given year requires a flat head screwdriver, the pinky phillips won’t do as well. Steelhead populations on the other hand will not fare as badly, while their phillips head won’t work well, they can simply pop open the leatherman and choose the right tool. This is what helps them occupy the greatest geographic distribution of any Pacific Salmon, all the way from Russia across the Pacific Rim down the Baja California. No other species of salmon comes even close to matching this. They are not leathermen.


Decided I can’t just walk away with figures and tables. I will continue the presentation tomorrow, until then, here is a small summer run steelhead. Nothing is more rewarding than spending all day snorkeling to finally capture an underwater photo of the most difficult species to shoot. I love these fish! 



Ambassador Profile: Sascha Clark Danylchuk

As a worshiper of sandy toes and mountain air, Sascha has spent most of her life seeking water in one form or another. Her obsession has led her to a career centered around the natural world. As a fisheries scientists Sascha has focused most of her work on recreational angling, specifically the science of catch-and-release. She has also worked for a handful of non-profit organizations putting conservation into practice.

It is the intersection between her work as a scientist and her passion as an angler that led Sascha to Keepemwet Fishing. With a belief that recreational anglers have something to learn from fisheries scientists and that scientists need to make their work accessible to a wider audience, Sascha endeavors to develop a space in which everyone can communicate more directly and in a language that can be understood by all.

With her commitment to bridging science and angling communities via the exclusive new series Finsights, we welcome Sascha to the Keepemwet team in the new position as Science Liaison.

FINSIGHTS interview with Sascha here.

Follow along with Sascha's new series "Finsights" where she breaks down the important elements of scientific reports into simple takeaways for the angling community to understand and embrace.

Follow along with Sascha's new series "Finsights" where she breaks down the important elements of scientific reports into simple takeaways for the angling community to understand and embrace.



Ambassador Profile: John McMillan

John was raised along the banks of the Washougal River in Southwest Washington where he spent most of his youth fly fishing for trout, steelhead and salmon.    His favorite fish were the summer steelhead, from the early June rains through the late Indian Summers. All other interests were set aside during this period.  Only steelhead mattered.

His early interest to steelhead carried over to adulthood.  He has lived much of the past twenty years on the west-side of the Olympic Peninsula, and for over a decade he fished an average of 340 days a year.  He spent that time adapting a style of casting and fishing in isolation -- wading deep, casting far, and swimming the fly broadside rather than solely swinging -- to solve the unique challenges of catching large winter steelhead in the brawling rainforest rivers.

He also spent 100's of days snorkeling the rivers, not only to inform his angling but also because he is a fisheries scientist. He has published numerous peer-reviewed articles in scientific journals, the vast majority of which has focused on the biology and ecology of steelhead and rainbow trout.  In addition, he has authored two books and several book chapters on steelhead and other topics, and his underwater photography and videography has been broadly published in books, magazines, newspapers, movies and television.  His latest publication is the book May the Rivers Never Sleep, which was a collaboration with his father Bill McMillan and pays homage to the strong conservation influence of Roderick Haig-Brown. 

He now works as the Science Director for Trout Unlimited's Wild Steelhead Initiative after spending the previous five years studying steelhead and salmon recolonization in the Elwha River. Much of his professional scientific study has focused on the biology, behavior and ecology of steelhead and rainbow trout, with a particular interest in the mechanisms influencing why individual fish adopt particular life history strategies -- such as anadromy and residency.

He also focuses on educating citizens about science and believes that every angler owes it to themselves – and the fish – to minimize their impacts by handling fish well.  That is why he is so excited to be an Ambassador for the Keep-em-wet movement.  Not only does the movement include some of the best scientists and advocates, but it also focuses on doing what we can as anglers to ensure that the fish swims away in the best shape possible.  That is something he fully supports the movement by Bryan Huskey and others, because it is up to each generation to do what they can to ensure the next generation has a chance to fish for the incredible wild steelhead.

John McMillan's Instagram page (@rainforest_steel) is perhaps the most fascinating, interesting and inspiring as anything we've ever seen.  View his underwater adventures and captivating narratives here.

John McMillan's Instagram page (@rainforest_steel) is perhaps the most fascinating, interesting and inspiring as anything we've ever seen. View his underwater adventures and captivating narratives here.

Ever thankful for his understanding and lovely wife, Laurel, and his sidekick Gordon Setter, Honey, much of his free time is spent casting Burkheimer spey rods, snorkeling and taking underwater photographs of juvenile and adult steelhead.