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Steelhead

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Welcome to a “Wild and Wet Winter”

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Welcome to a “Wild and Wet Winter” … a CalTrout, Keepemwet Fishing and Lost Coast Outfitters initiative celebrating California’s wild winter steelhead. Our goals are to build awareness of the environmental threats and opportunities impacting sustainable population recovery, as well as, to educate the angling community on the rationale for Keepemwet fish handling practices, and to encourage anglers to follow them.

Each Wednesday through the end of the winter season, we’ll focus on one or more aspects impacting winter run steelhead. You’ll hopefully better understand the winter run life cycle and population distribution, top three threats … (major dams, estuary alteration, and agriculture), and conservation efforts ranging from the Smith to the South Fork Eel.

We’ll help you understand ways in which anglers can minimize their affect on fish. We’ll provide insight into the science supporting Keepemwet practices. You’ll understand the impact of landing time, landing practices (netting versus tailing), and barbed hooks, what happens when you take fish out of the water, how long is too long for a fish to be out of the water (and why), thoughts on ways to hold fish to minimize harm, and lastly how to take pictures that celebrate your catch while keeping fish wet.

Hopefully, we’ll help minimize fish mortality and the negative impact some practices can have on spawning efficacy.

See you next Wednesday and have a Wild and Wet Winter

CalTrout: to learn more about California winter run steelhead

Keepemwet Fishing: to learn more about Keepemwet priniciples

Lost Coast Outfitters: blog on many things fly fishing related

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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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April Vokey's Grip & Grin Debate

 

By April Vokey

Originally published in Fly Fusion Magazine Fall 2012

Grip & grin photos don't have to be bad for the fish. Image courtesy April Vokey.

Grip & grin photos don't have to be bad for the fish. Image courtesy April Vokey.

Disclaimer:

It’s another one of those nights; quiet, cold, late and lifeless. Angry rain releases its fury onto the tin roof of my small guide cabin and wind-strewn branches scrape the thin glass window that looks out towards the vast, dense forest bordering the Dean River.
To my left, Colby snores heavily into his blanket, his whisker-clad nose and thick-furred shoulders twitching furiously as he sleeps through the storm.  I smile at him; yes, it seems these nights have the same effect on us all.

The welcome flicker of a dancing flame livens up even the most ordinary of glass jars and the yellow glow illuminates the paper rested on my lap, allowing my eager pen access to the crisp white paper.  I gaze at the two; so unremarkable yet so capable.  The irony doesn’t escape me, and I am reminded again of why at an early age I was drawn to the comfort of such tools.  As pen and paper merge, a literary intimacy begins and a message is born.

In the past I have been confined by the simplicity and politics of strict editors and conservative publications.  “April, perhaps a light-hearted piece is in order? Maybe one on gear, or presentation, or even seasons…?  Perhaps you can let the pot settle for a little bit before stirring it again?”
The plea is fair, for many an angler thrives on such articles, so I succumb to the unpleasant thought of stifled opinion, lingering on the edges of boredom while differentiating between dead-drifted glo-bugs and current-swung streamers.

In truth, there are only so many ways that this twenty-nine year old mind can phrase what has already been so rigorously explored and defined by men nearly three times my age.
Respectfully, I try to leave the technique-jargoned “how-to’s” for the mechanically inclined professionals — those who thrive off the vagaries of weather data, hydrometric charts and the latest and greatest in gear technology.
While relatively versed in those things, I prefer the quiet satisfaction of reader’ contemplation and the occasional bout of reflection.
I have been well behaved in my last two columns and would like to redeem my “get out of jail free” card before commencing with my next dice roll in the columnist’s game of editorial monopoly.

Defining the Grip & Grin…
The eeriness of the night has always been a cruel friend of mine. It does to me what it does to Colby, and my brain ticks and twitches with overwhelming ideas, thoughts and dreams.
I frantically jot down my impulsive flashes and try to guide the ink across the page in the blindness of the black room.  It was a night much like this nearly one year ago that was the impetus for this article. I had been lying in bed below the same tin roof, sore and satisfyingly fatigued from a long excursion upriver with fellow guide, Steve Morrow. It was the end of our season and the two of us had trekked into a long flow of water in the upper stretches of the fabled Dean River in pursuit of adventure.  Steve and I had spent the last sixty consecutive days guiding other anglers and assisting them with the stalking, hooking, landing and releasing of hot steelhead that were making their migratory journey to the Dean’s tributaries.

Through wind, rain, heat and horseflies, the two of us had landed more fish than we could count and the mantra of the grip; cradle; lift; smile; click; “give her a drink;” release, made our personal fishing days all the more relaxed when it came time to land our own fish.
As an unspoken rule, if we were within talking distance we would assist each other with a speedy release, but the camera played shy, emerging only for the occasional fish thats girth extended our splayed fingers more than usual.
That night, as I lay listening to the soothing pattering of rain, I replayed the day’s events and closed my eyes to envision the metallic green and gold flecks that shone brightly around the fire in one of the wild hens’ eyes.
To do her justice there was simply no need for a camera. I saw her clear and vivid on the inner dark screen of my rested eyelids; she had made an impression on my mind and her beauty had set itself in the depths of my memory where I could visit whenever I so inclined.


I’m no stranger to participation in the classic “grip-and-grin” photo; I had the pose down to a science.  Four of my fingers lightly cradle her slick, white belly while the other hand closes a firm grip around her sturdy, spotted tail.  Together my hands lift on cue, allowing the light to accentuate her bright silver scales, the water droplets rolling and teetering on her soft edges before plunging back down into the river around my knees.
The fish, safe in my grasp, awaits the greedy click of the shutter, and I turn my face to the camera with a trophy smile, entranced by my jewel.
The paradox here may not be obvious at first. To be honest, I had always softly lingered on the minor contradiction that posed-photography raises.  You see, for some, in that chaotic instance of camera-bag digging, electronic fumbling and verbal communication between photographer and subject, it is inevitable that a moment of pure intimacy between the angler and his prize is lost.

In a circumstance where 30 seconds is the appropriate amount of time to be shared between the “gripped” and the “grinned”, 28 of those seconds are often spent concentrating on the camera’s black dials and glass lenses, rather than on the fish.

It’s an ironic trade off; an unconscious sacrificial exchange between the moment of mental imagery and the moment of distracted, hectic poses. Both result in a stored image; one in remembrance and one in pixels.
While I most certainly will not speak for others, I eventually found myself dreading the sloshing footsteps of an encroaching photographer.
In the 30-second allotment that I had to spend with my surrendered beauty, even the smallest of distractions became an annoyance to me, and I longed to be left alone to indulge in the uninterrupted silence where my eyes could etch a permanent picture in my mind.

It might be wise for me to clarify myself further.  Occasionally I wholeheartedly delight in having a remarkable steelhead documented for my photo collection. There are some photographs I desire for future reflection and gratification; an early season buck with extra-hefty shoulders, the flawless and perfectly slender doe, the dainty downturned eye above small, sharp teeth.

In such instances, whether captured by the shaky lens in my phone or by the calm fingers of a courteously hushed photographer, I’m granted my quiet moment, free of direction, poses or displaced attention. The result is ideal: mental imagery paired with captured digital images, both of which are romantic, relaxed, natural, and true.
Some of the resulting photographs focus on the most unique characteristics of the moment: the glint in an angler’s eye, the small grin of satisfaction, the blushed cheeks of both exhausted fisher and fish, the caring lift of a surrendered steelhead over a protruding rock, the splashing water from a flailing tail, each a natural marvel caught in time.

The grip-and-grin argument is not a new topic in the world of angling. In states such as Washington it is illegal to fully lift a wild steelhead out of the water before releasing it.  I’m sure there are some who object to such limitations, but the argument that a fish is safer in the water weighed heavier on the conservation scale, and the law was implemented.  While the science of such impacts is still controversial, it is an undeniable that if given one of two circumstances (in or out of the water), it is the circumstance of leaving the fish in the water that causes the least risk to its health.
By minimizing damage to the fish’s vital organs due to inexperienced, unpracticed handling of fish, the state of Washington justified their legislation in the eyes of many avid steelhead anglers and activists.

Whether or not I can support this regulation with scientific evidence is a moot point, but from a purely photographic perspective I find this prohibition of grip and grins quite refreshing, as some of my favourite streamside photographs are the subtle and organic shots of half submerged lateral lines, upstream-turned snouts and healthy flared gills steadied as a conscientious angler prepares a steelhead for release.

April landing a stud of a wild steelhead. Photo courtesy of the author.

April landing a stud of a wild steelhead. Photo courtesy of the author.

It was one year ago under that tin roof in the middle of the forest that I questioned my integrity and my reasons for striving for that perfectly-posed photo.
I asked myself with all honesty, was it really for my memory?  If it was, surely there are better ways to remember a fish than with extended arms and a static smile.  Was it for a new Facebook profile?  For Internet marketing?  For the cover of the next magazine? Why was I wasting my time in a state of vanity with this perfect steelhead?
While my guilt danced alongside the flickering candle, I made a decision that I am determined to keep. I’m blessed to have caught plenty of steelhead over the past decade, possess enough grip-and-grin photos, and certainly had more than enough desktop backgrounds to keep me enthusiastic during the slow seasons.  So in the dim light of that cabin I made the choice that I was no longer going to personally contribute to the plethora of posed steelhead photos in this sport where industry standards have established the glorious grip-and-grin as the ultimate in fishing memorabilia.
Of course, my clients and friends are free to do as they wish. Many wait all year to bring home that trip-of-a-lifetime photo of them with an ear to ear smile, and rightfully so.  My mission is not to judge others who don’t agree with my reasoning, but rather to judge myself and put forth a personal commitment to something I believe in.
Earlier this spring I took the plunge and made an announcement on the Internet of my promise to alter my ways.   The response was unlike any that I could have predicted.
A large majority of responders were supportive, a few were confused, and while I pointed no fingers at anyone other than myself, some were downright offended.
There were more than a few people who assumed that giving up steelhead “hero shots” meant that I had given up steelhead fishing itself.  This made me chuckle as the confusion simply fuelled the fire of my point.  Is that truly what the ultimate goal has become to some anglers? A photograph? If I can’t showcase a photo, is it implied that I will no longer be fishing?

There were some who were genuinely concerned and even a few who kindly reached out to me to ensure that I was well and that I hadn’t been hurt by someone prior to my post.
The conclusion that sums up this contentious viewpoint is a simple “to each his own” shoulder shrug and a short reflection of one’s personal beliefs.  For me, I now prefer to keep the majority of my steelhead images stored internally, yet still thrive off watching my friends glow behind the raised silver gleam of a strong and healthy fish.

I will continue to grip and grin my next few permit, tarpon, fifty-plus pound Chinook and twenty-five inch thickly spotted brown trout that I manage to land, and will do so proudly until I have caught enough of each that I can see them in the same light I see my beloved steelhead in.
I will be true to my beliefs, a fan of my integrity and a foe of my insincerities, a woman who relishes the moment, and an angler who sees more than just a fish. Come the day that my experience on the water holds less clout than how impressive my Facebook profile is, I will put away my rods, stow my reels, whiten my smile and seek the “best in show” award from a hobby more fixated on the brilliance of my teeth.
I can assure you; it won’t be any time soon.
April.

 

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Ambassador Profile: Marty Sheppard

Born and raised in Oregon, Marty grew up on the banks of the Sandy River. With his dad as tutor and angling mentor, Marty landed his first steelhead at the age of five. During the 70s his dad continued to hone and shape [perhaps unknowingly] Marty’s future by taking him fishing, seemingly every day, and instilling in him the instincts and techniques for pursuing steelhead. Much of his fly-fishing inspiration came from devouring books, especially those written by such notable and insightful naturalists as Roderick Haig-Brown and Bill McMillan. While still a young strapling in the 1990s, Steve Kruse took Marty underwing and taught him the art of Spey casting. Perhaps it should come as no surprise that all these elements now manifest themselves as Marty’s unbounded enthusiasm for guiding—backed up by over a decade of professional experience in the “field”—and an almost missionary zeal for teaching others and sharing in the pure joy of rivers.

Website.

Instagram.

In addition to being a veteran steelhead guide, Marty is also a top notch photographer.

In addition to being a veteran steelhead guide, Marty is also a top notch photographer.

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Ambassador Profile: Jeff Hickman

"Dating back to some of my earliest introductions in the fly fishing industry, Jeff Hickman has held a lofty reputation as fisheries advocate and NW steelehead Jedi. Over time we established many mutual friends, so the first chance I had to introduce myself (the 2009 IFTD Show in Denver) I grabbed him to bend his ear a bit. Just as described, Jeff was as friendly and approachable as an old pal. Ever since then it seemed each time I happened to be on an Oregon steelehad river, there was Hickman. Always on the water, always friendly and happy to pull to shore and chat. Jeff's high profile reputation is well-earned and deserved. Take a scroll through his social media content and you'll be amazed at the incredible fish and places he knows so well. Although he's devoted to exclusively swinging flies, Jeff is a true ambassador of sport fishing and game fish of all kinds."

-Bryan Huskey

Keepemwet Founder

Jeff taught himself to fly fish and tie flies when he was 10. Growing up in a lodge on Mt Hood that he helped his mom manage, he saved up his housekeeping wages to buy his first Spey rod at 12. Hitchhiking to the river before and after school, he was doomed to a life of fishing addiction. The strong addiction lead to fly shop employment, guiding in Oregon and Alaska and even management at a bonefishing lodge in the Bahamas. Jeff started Fish The Swing in '11 to show his commitment to "swing only" and now owns and operates three well respected and sought after fishing/guiding programs in Oregon as well as Kimsquit Bay Lodge on the Dean River in British Columbia. Website. INSTAGRAM

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Ambassador Profile: Mia Sheppard

"Mia's career and livelihood revolve around conservation. I first came to know Mia via her strong advocacy for wild runs of steelhead in Eastern Oregon, and her career as an accomplished steelhead angler and guide. A short time later our paths crossed again with various media collaboration projects for public land and wildlife habitat. A great friend on the river or in the field, Mia knows the ropes in a wide range of topics involving fishing, fisheries and habitat. She is a strong leader who walks the walk of Keepemwet Fishing."

-Bryan Huskey

Keepemwet Founder

Threetime world champion spey caster,  accomplished guide, conservationist,  upland bird hunter, skier and mother, Mia Sheppard, grew up in Tennessee, chasing trout and hiking the beautiful Great Smoky Mountains. Fly fishing caught her attention in 1996 and in 2001, Marty Sheppard, her husband, introduced her to spey casting, and connecting with steelhead.  In 2003 they purchased Little Creek Outfitters, a outfitter deep rooted in fly-fishing since the early 90’s, guiding anglers into steelhead, trout, and smallmouth bass on Oregon Rivers.
Committed to conservation, she works for the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, is a river steward for Native Fish Society, the conservation chair for IWFF and supporter of Deschutes River Alliance, Trout Unlimited, Casting For Recovery, Fly Fishing Collaborative and Keepemwet Fishing. Mia has contributed to the books; Wild Steelhead: the Lure and Lore of a Pacific Northwest Icon and 50 Best Places Fly Fishing the Northwest. She is an ambassador for Simms Fishing Products, Airflo Lines and Field Advisor for Winston Rods.  When she isn’t fishing she can be found chasing upland birds or skiing Mt Hood with family and friends. Website. INSTAGRAM

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