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John McMillan

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Thoughts From John McMillan- Wild Steelhead of the OP

No better way to start the new year than with a hen less than 100 yards from the ocean. And while I wish everyone a happy New Year, and some chrome this winter, I also want to raise awareness about the plight of Olympic Peninsula wild steelhead.

No better way to start the new year than with a hen less than 100 yards from the ocean. And while I wish everyone a happy New Year, and some chrome this winter, I also want to raise awareness about the plight of Olympic Peninsula wild steelhead.

By Keepemwet Fishing Science Ambassador John R McMillan

Populations of wild steelhead are in long-term decline in the Hoh, Queets and Quinalt. In fact, since 1980 (when they started collecting data on annual run sizes) populations of wild steelhead have declined by 33% in the Hoh and 48% in the Queets. The Quillayute system has fared a bit better, but it too has been in decline since the mid-90’s and it has experienced some of the smallest runs on record in recent years. In fact, just a couple years ago the Bogachiel escaped only 733 wild steelhead. That’s it, 733 fish. Last year was the smallest run size on record in the Queets, and the Hoh River steelhead have met the escapement goal less than 50% of the time in the past 15 years. That bad news: it looks like the trend will continue this winter. Managers estimate the run size will be only 7800 steelhead in the Quillayute, which includes the Bogachiel, Sol Duc, Calawah and Dickey Rivers. The forecast for the Hoh is a paltry 3,000 fish. Of further concern, ocean conditions don’t appear to be getting better in the next year or two, in fact, they may get even worse. During these poor return years it is incumbent upon anglers to play their part in conserving the fish. We, as anglers, are no longer harvesting wild steelhead in these streams. But, we are catching them, and catching them quite often. Data from 2014 in the Hoh indicates on average, every fish that escaped the tribal fishery was caught 1.44 times. And that is an underestimate, and does not include fish that were hooked and lost. Similar results were found in the Sol Duc. We don’t know what such high encounter rates do to wild steelhead. All I know is I love these fish. I love snorkeling with them. I love fishing for them. So, this year, my New Year’s resolution is to fish a bit less to give them a break, and make up some of that experience with snorkeling. It isn’t easy, but its better for the fish. 

John McMillan is the Science Director for Trout Unlimited's Wild Steelhead Initiative

Explore more of John's work here.

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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

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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.

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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.

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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! 

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Thoughts From John McMillan- Salmon & Steelhead Part 1

From the Instagram account of Keepemwet Fishing Science Ambassador John R McMillan. @rainforest_steel

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Let’s begin! Steelhead are a species of #PacificSalmon, which includes sockeye, coho, chum, pink, chinook, steelhead and cutthroat trout – in addition to cherry/masu salmon. They all descended from a common ancestor millions of years ago. Despite the shared genetic heritage, each species has evolved a unique set of characteristics, such as optimal range of temperatures, metabolisms, age at smolting, time spent in ocean, size at maturity, and whether or not they go to the ocean. These attributes differentiate the species, in addition to a variety of other features. The challenge with steelhead is that they are often managed in the same way we manage salmon such as coho, sockeye and kings. In those management schemes we tend focus almost solely on abundance, aka: How many fish do we get back each year? Though an important metric, for a species like steelhead their abundance does not exist within a vacuum, it is partly – and sometimes strongly so – a function of their diversity. The question is then: What is the big difference between steelhead and salmon?

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The Skagit River in Washington state provides a good starting point for comparing salmon and steelhead because it has so many species of salmon. I start with #pinksalmon. Here we have the total annual run size of pinks, the number of fish for pinks is on the axis on the right. Below we have #chumsalmon, and their abundance is depicted on the axis to the left. I separated pinks from other species because they are incredibly abundant and make it almost impossible to see the variation in lesser abundant fish. In any case, wow, that is a tremendous amount of variation from year to year in both species. In some years you have over 1.5 millions pinks, in other years you have less than 100k. Similar variability with chum. In some years over 500k return to the Skagit, in other years it is less than 20K. The point is we see a lot of variation among years in terms of run size for these two species. This is probably not a surprise to most anglers. Chum and pink – and sometimes sockeye – have evolved to rely heavily on their abundance as a means of sustaining themselves. Next post I focus on the other species of salmon, and then finally, steelhead, before we get into looking at the diversity within the diversity.

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Day 2 of the presentation. Here we have all the other species of salmon and steelhead for the Skagit. The abundance of #cohosalmon#kingsalmon, and #wildsteelhead is found on the left axis. We can see there is more variation in coho annual run sizes than there is for kings and more variation for kings than there is for steelhead. For instance, coho run sizes have exceeded 400k fish in one year, but are lower than 10K in others. For kings we run sizes from about 7k up to 25k, rarely more, while steelhead are basically going from 3k up to 12k. Essentially, steelhead display the least amount of variation year-to-year in terms of population size. The big question is: Can we attribute any of this variability among species to some aspect of their biology? That is what I will cover in the next slide.

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time to look for potential explanations. Life history diversity is one feature that could help explain such variability. For example, in recent years scientists have coined the term “Portfolio Concept,” which basically means that different life histories survive at different rates at different times and places. Such diversity can potentially help dampen annual variability in run sizes by spreading risk across time and space. To determine if that is one cause, we first must identify how many life histories each species displays. Here is a table that describes the number of life histories found in each species. First, I have freshwater life histories: the number smolt age classes in each species. Steelhead have four because smolt ages range from 1-4 years old – though one-year olds are rare in the Skagit. Kings have two, yearlings and sub-yearlings. There is only a single strategy for all other species, sub-yearlings for chum and pink, and yearlings for coho. Next I considered ocean ages, which ranges from 1-4 years for steelhead. For kings we have 2,3, and 4-salt fish, though historically there were also 5-salt. Chum and coho also generally have about 3 age classes for adults, though they tend to be younger than kings. In contrast, all pinks do the same thing – go figure! They are putting all their eggs into one basket each year. Last we have run timing. There are two for steelhead, summers and winters. Same for kings, summer/spring and fall, while there is only one run timing for coho and chum. I gave pinks two run timing because while most are odd year fish, there are a few even year. I was being generous. I think multiplied freshwater life histories by ocean life histories, and then that number by run timing. The result is a total number of potential life histories for each species, excluding repeat spawners for steelhead. And what we see is that #wildsteelheadhave many many more life histories than the other species. Back to my original question: Can this diversity help explain the variation in annual run sizes? I dive into that tomorrow, until then, may the diversity be with you.

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Thoughts From John McMillan- King Salmon

King Salmon from the Instagram page of Keepemwet Fishing Science Ambassador John McMillan.

King Salmon from the Instagram page of Keepemwet Fishing Science Ambassador John McMillan.

What do dinosaurs and king salmon have in common? More than you might think. 66 million years ago an asteroid hit the Gulf of Mexico. The subsequent climatic changes eliminated all of the large-bodied dinosaurs. Today, the only remaining direct descendants are birds, though more distant relatives like snakes, lizards, and crocs are present. Regardless, bird or reptile, notice anything? They are all much smaller than the dinosaurs. During childhood I was awestruck by the concept of dinosaurs, but thanks to a damn meteor I never got to see one. Instead, I made do with illustrations and plastic toys. So, what does this have to do with kings? Parallels. The gal in the photo is around 40lbs, large for this day and age. But she’s small fry compared to the 70-100lb fish that once roamed the ocean. Why are those big specimens, the dinosaurs of the salmon-world, now so rare? Because in order to get huge, a fish has to live a long time – six to seven years. To do that a king must make 4-6 laps around the Alaskan Gyre without being caught by a troller or gill net. It is simply too difficult for many fish to make that many laps without being killed. As a result, maximum age and size has decreased. For example, in the Pacific North West 5-year olds are as common now as 7-year olds were in the 40s and 50s. The decrease in age helps explain why our fish are now so small, and has likely reduced their fitness. From an evolutionary standpoint, large size is the king’s calling card, just like abundance is for pinks and diversity is for steelhead. Larger kings carry more eggs, can dig deeper redds to avoid scour, and have more fat to help them make long freshwater migrations. Kings need to be large to be productive, without question. The saddest part is that some kid in 100 years may be fishing for 15” kings, thinking they are large. He will only have photographs and videos to remind him of what once was, just as I had to live vicariously through a toy T-rex. We are the meteor. The kings are the dinosaurs. Something has to change.

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Thoughts From John McMillan

Via John McMillan Instagram @rainforest-steel

Via John McMillan Instagram @rainforest-steel

Wow, long time without a post! Probably because it has been the heart of winter #steelheadseason and I have been doing field and office work. Trying to fish, keep the wife happy and work is not always an easy balance. Sometimes I get to combine things, which is great. Last weekend I went fishing with @jdarrfishing down in Tillamook. Josiah and I don't necessarily see eye-to-eye on all aspects of steelhead management. But, we both love fish. We both grew up in the PNW, him in Scapoose and myself in Washougal. So basically we are a couple of dudes who love to fish for steelhead and want to keep fishing for these magnificent fish until the day we die. Josiah invited me to share his boat with his girlfriend, who is smart and a kick ass angler. I couldn't turn it down. Now, I almost solely swing a fly for steelhead at this point in my life, though I still sometimes enjoy fishing a spoon. But, I have tried nearly all methods at some point in my life. That day we basically bobber-dogged our way down the river. It was fun. I managed a wild hen, the fish in this photo, while Josiah and Lindsey kicked my butt by hauling in 5 hatchery steelhead. All in all, great weather and a great day on the river. What struck me the most is while we may never agree on all points about steelhead management, inside we are both a couple of 12 year olds who love fishing for steelhead. Like Josiah, I see value in hatcheries too. I enjoy killing fish to eat and took home two of the hatchery fish to share with the family. But I also see value in having our best wild populations of steelhead remain wild. Somewhere there is a balance to be found for wild and hatchery. We didn't get into that very much. Instead, we soaked up the sun and caught some steelhead. I learned a new trick or two from Josiah and got to experience the broodstock program in the Wilson. All in all, a great day and a good time being on the water. Ultimately, all of us need to reach across and talk to one another. We all want to keep fishing. The more we find common ground, the better off our fish and fisheries will be. Thanks Josiah! 

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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.

Instagram.

 

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