Ever wonder why sometimes the steelhead you catch look so different from others? Or why some fish come up in the summer, fall, or spring?
The history of Michigan Steelhead goes back farther than I imagined. The first steelhead introduced to Lake Michigan were from California strains and Klamath Oregon strains in the the AuSable river WAY BACK in 1876!!! By 1093 the State of Michigan was panting over 800,000 anadromous rainbow trout. The plantings reached an all time high in 1911 of over 2,5 million!!!
In 1966 modern hatcheries were making over 5 million steelhead per year distributed to various states.
Currently the state of Michigan plants four different strains of steelhead.
The Skamania Steelhead is a summer run fish and was originally introduced in 1975 from the Skamania hatchery in Washington State. There have been three other types of summer run fish that have been introduced into Michigan tributaries at one time or another. These other three were Rogue, Siletz, and Umpqua steelhead that have probably cross bread with other steelhead and some characteristics may have survived over the years. The summer run fish enter the streams as early as June and stay in the river until possibly February when they spawn. The Skamania is hands down, the craziest of all steelhead. It is a world class fighter that can make several acrobatic jumps and runs in the matter of seconds sometimes leaving a fisherman holding his rod with a slack lines as the fish gets away. Skamania never ever disappoint!!!
The Little Manistee Steelhead is the original strain from the early plantings which gets it's name from the Little Manistee Weir that supplies many of the states hatcheries. This weir is the sole provider of this strain since 1968 for Michigan, Indiana and Ohio. The Manistee steelhead typically enters the stream in early March and spawns by the end of April.
The Chambers Creek steelhead was introduced into Michigan from a stocking program in NY state. The fish were obtained from the South Tacoma Hatchery in Washington. Chambers Creek Steelhead enter the rivers as early as October and filter in all of the way until March. These fish are considered to be Michigan's Winter steelhead.
The Ganaraska Steelhead were obtained from Ontario and are the latest spawners in Michigan Streams. Some may be found in the rivers until May. These fish are also the last group to enter the rivers most not entering the rivers until March.
It is possible that all strains and some off shots from a by gone era could be in any giver river at the same time in late winter/early spring. It has been speculated that there has been cross breeding of the strains as well.
I have caught many steelies with unusual spot patterns and odd coloration. This spring I caught a female around 6-7 pounds with no spots from her head almost all the way to the tail. I had never seen a spot pattern quite like it before. In the same hole I caught another female whose coloration was almost coppery on the back and was spotted from nose to tail! I am curious if spotting patters has anything to do with the different strains?
On one particular day in Hamilton on the Rabbit River I landed seven fish, which was my best day this spring. I caught one small male with almost no spots on it's head from it's head to dorsal fin. It didn't have many spots at all, but the few it had seemed larger than normal. The next male I caught was so thin that it resembled a snake. This one was so covered in spots they even went well below the lateral line almost to its belly. I caught three females that were almost identical in size, shape, spotting and coloration that I would have bet the were sisters. One big rooster (male steelhead) was so bright red and looked like he had jumped a dozen dams and been in several fights. This fish had a hooked jaw and was almost black . Obviously this beast had spent the winter months in the river. It's wounds and battle scars did little to hamper it's ability to fight giving me the longest runs of any fish I had this spring. The last fish was a small male that resembled the sisters except for its size. Of all the fish four seemed very similar and had probably entered the stream in the same pod of fish. The other three were so very different. Of all the fish I had caught this spring, only two were fin clipped. I hope that many of the others were wild fish..
I prefer to fish on The Pere Marquette in the flies only/catch and release section, where I have no choice but to turn them back. There is no way to explain the good feeling you get from returning a fish back into the wild :)
All in all I consider the steelhead to be the best fish in all of the Great Lakes! Their beauty is unmatched except maybe by their power and acrobatic ability.
There are some rumors I would also like to de-bunk about steelhead.
Rumor: Steelhead spawn once and die from stress when entering the lake.
Fact: Steelhead can spawn multiple times and can live up to 8 years. Some die from the rigors of spawning, but most do not.
Rumor: Most steelhead are infertile, so you may as well keep them.
Fact: Most female steelhead lay hundreds of eggs on her redd but only a few if any will survive until adulthood (2-3years).
Rumor: Once a fish is caught it will die from the stress of the fight.
Fact: Most fish if handled and released properly can survive several fights. Handle the fish as gentle as possible. Wet your hands before touching them. If they are tired from a battle revive them in the current until they can swim off on their own.
Rumor: All steelhead are hatchery fish. Being raised in a hatchery makes them all sterile.
Fact: There is some natural production in Great Lakes rivers. Some rivers, like the PM, have high rates of natural reproduction. Some streams may have almost zero. Some things to remember are to try not to hook spawning females. Try not to walk through beds when looking for fish or landing a fish for others.
Rumor: Steelhead do not bite and the only way you can catch them is if you force feed them.
Fact: OK, If I hear another country bumpkin tell me this I swear I'm going to punch them in the bleeping face! No not really, but I will just report your sorry A$$!!!!