February 03, 2021
This story was originally titled “Ice Travelers: 25 Years of the World's Most Successful Steelhead Protection Program.” It appeared in the Oct-Nov-Dec-2021 issue of Fly Fisherman.
Assigned as Kamchatka field biologist by the Russian Imperial Senate, Georg Wilhelm Steller arrived at Kamchatka’s Bolshaya River on September 21, 1740. He was One of few to survive a November 1741 shipwreck during the Bering expedition to Alaska. By 1743, after Steller’s return to Kamchatka, he had described five species of Pacific salmon that still carry the names native people gave to him (tshawytscha, nerka, keta, kisutch, and gorbuscha), and that of steelhead (Kamchatka symomga) and rainbow trout (mikyzha). His findings remained unpublished until Stepan Krasheninnikov’s A Description of the Land of Kamchatka in 1755. Steelhead and rainbow trout were not officially recognized as one species in both Asia and North America until 1989. They are now universally known as mykiss.
My initial experience of where steelhead were first described came in the form of a stunningly unexpected offer from Pete Soverel to send me to Kamchatka as field operations co-director of the Kamchatka Steelhead Project (KSP) in 1995 and 1996 at the Kvachina and Snotalvayam rivers. After more than 40 years of fishing for, living with, and studying steelhead at that time, I thought I understood their past, their present, and a future with little optimism for them. In 1994, 178 populations of steelhead in Washington, Idaho, Oregon, and California were petitioned for listing under the Endangered Species Act. Most would eventually be listed. Many populations had already gone extinct decades before.
The remaining anadromous fish populations on the U.S. West Coast are remnants—tattered, torn, and isolated shreds of the original fabric. I had no notion of what to expect of Kamchatka. I only knew that I needed to go there . . . a last place to find hope, not pessimism.
Kamchatka is one of the few places remaining on the North Pacific Rim where a significant geographic area still exists with much of the wild salmonid “fabric” still intact. A 750-mile-long peninsula hanging off Siberia, opposite the Aleutian Islands, its mountain spine has 300 volcanoes, 29 of which are active. Considered an enchanted land by Russians, where fire meets ice, vast areas remain untouched nature. Brown bears have the greatest density per area on the planet, largely due to the immense numbers of all six species of Pacific salmon. Half of all the world’s Steller’s sea eagles (the largest eagle in the world) are in Kamchatka for the same reasons as the bears. No roads connect it to the rest of Russia—sea, air, or foot the only alternatives. It provides an opportunity not unlike that of Charles Darwin’s HMS Beagle voyage to the Galapagos Islands in 1835.
My Kamchatka experience was of a largely uninhabited, vast, and silent expanse where fishery discoveries might occur at any moment. The limitations of trying to understand the fish and rivers of the northwestern U.S.—when they’ve already been impacted by 150 years of aggressive resource exploitation—became immediately clear. Kamchatka is the intact example of what the anadromous fish population complex once was in North America—a complete fabric built on diversity, abundance, and the beneficial interactions of the varied fish species and stocks in their adaptations to differing habitat niches and to each other without the perpetual interference of hatchery programs. It provides the instruction manual to put Humpty Dumpty back together again.
As profound as the Kamchatka experiences were in the two months I spent there in both 1995 and 1996, and despite the pristine environment and their diverse life histories, the wild steelhead populations had already been reduced by illegal, industrial-grade poaching. The early success of fly-fishing catch-and-release to collect research samples during KSP expeditions gave the impression of steelhead abundance—especially when compared to steelhead depletion in Pacific Northwest rivers. However, the very reason for the 1994 KSP expedition agreement between Pete Soverel (then of the Wild Salmon Center) and Professor Ksenya Savvaitova (Ichthyology Department, Moscow State University) was to fund ongoing research of Kamchatka steelhead, because in 1983 they were listed in the Russian Red Book of endangered species.
That listing, on Professor Savvaitova’s initiative, remains a unique example of preventive action, rather than reaction after wildlife declines have already occurred. For example, Snake River sockeye in Idaho were not protected by the U.S. Endangered Species Act until 1991, after zero sockeye returned to Redfish Lake the prior year.
Kamchatka steelhead were not listed in Russia because of any known decline. They were listed because prior research in the 1960s-1970s ended due to lack of government funding for monitoring, the few and remote steelhead rivers. Without continued monitoring they were considered highly vulnerable. The KSP agreement provides continuing funding and data collection supporting a comprehensive research program made possible by sponsoring fly fishers. Although there were no legal commercial fisheries for steelhead, illegal poaching was considered a great potential threat.
The Red Book listing proved prophetic. With the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1990s, economic freefall ensued, facilitating rampant steelhead poaching, which greatly reduced the steelhead populations returning to the three KSP study rivers: Utkholok, Kvachina, and Snotalvayam. Steelhead responded to their rapid decline in abundance with dramatic shifts in the life history structure of their populations—longer ocean residency, multiple repeat spawning, and increased proportion of resident and estuarine individuals (rainbow trout) to sustain the interactive rainbow/steelhead populations.
However, due to the presence of KSP expeditions at these same rivers from 1994 forward (that included enforcement presence) it was hoped that poaching would decline and that the steelhead populations would recover, and their diverse life histories might again favor more steelhead surviving first-time ocean migrations back to spawning destinations. But would this occur?
The Kamchatka Steelhead Project (KSP) is a long-running (1994-present) program studying Oncorhynchus mykiss (steelhead and rainbow trout) in Kamchatka, where steelhead are a protected species. The KSP is authorized by the Russian Ministry of Environment and is an official program under the U.S.-Russia Agreement on the Environment. The Conservation Angler and Moscow State University jointly administer the KSP under Russian Federation approvals. Bill McMillan served as 1995-1996 KSP Kvachina River co-director. KSP invited him to return in 2019, the 25th anniversary of the program, to assess the scientific and conservation outcomes over that quarter century. -Pete Soverel
In October of 2019, two weeks of storms transformed late summer to the onset of winter at the Kvachina River KSP expedition camp. The lowest summer river flows in 25 years lingered into late September. A first storm of rain and mountain snow came two days prior to my late September arrival. For a brief three days, there were ideal fishing conditions—increased flows and cooler water encouraging steelhead to move up from the Sea of Okhotsk. Steelhead came to flies well, even using a floating line. Perhaps our success would mirror the large number of steelhead sampled in both 2017 and 2018?
That hope was short-lived. Inexplicably the river continued to rise—three feet in three days. With it came snow and ice pellets driven on gales spaced by sudden clearings. Kamchatka weather can come from any direction, generated by what the Russians call cyclones of rain, snow, or both. It’s an atmospheric battleground. The steelhead have adapted to the coldest climate they can endure. Snow and ice is present six or seven months of the year, and the steelhead spawn in late spring. The Sea of Okhotsk they traverse freezes entirely, making these steelhead “ice travelers” in every sense.
Kamchatka steelhead research, from the time of Steller’s discovery onward, has always been challenging. The 2019 weather brought back the memory of Kirill Kuzishchin’s morning greeting during late October in 1996 after a blizzard rattled our tent walls all night: “Bill, another day to do heroic deeds!”
That same day Kirill and our third tentmate, Sergei Maximov (KSP manager, associate professor at Moscow State University) would prove that the ice travelers still existed—steelhead that continue to enter the river after it ices up completely—as first described by Maximov’s late father in the 1960s. They motored downstream during a lull in the storm. After over two hours without their return, I went in search of them, hiking a mile in deep snow.
From a bluff, I saw them in an epic struggle. Flowing ice had congealed into a solid mass for 300 yards. Kirill was bent forward, straining to drag the loaded boat over the ice. Sergei heaved with an oar against the ice from the boat. At open water, Kirill crawled back into the boat, the motor started, and off to camp they went. On their return, five steelhead lay on the snow. Sergei beamed at me. “The ice travelers!”
We did not remain until ice-up in 2019. The 1996 KSP expedition had already proven that ice travelers still exist. Nevertheless, environmental conditions presented a great challenge for steelhead data collection. A procession of cyclonic storms resulted in continuous high, turbid flows, limiting visibility to about 4 inches in the Kvachina, and 8 inches in the Snotalvayam. Any sane angler would have turned around and gone home. But the KSP is strictly a scientific research program, and fly fishers are responsible for collecting the biological samples. More to the point, the only “home” was our camp. We had all committed to be here for the duration of the expedition. And there remained that Russian sense of optimistic fatalism: “Another day to do heroic deeds.”
During the last eight days of the 2019 season, the Kvachina camp was at full capacity. So as not to crowd the boats on the Kvachina, or the small ATV vehicle that traveled daily to the Snotalvayam, I focused on photography and long walks across the tundra.
One morning while hiking a half mile downstream from the Kvachina River camp, I stopped to take photos of Cora Siipola and her father fishing the opposite side of the river. She had never hooked a steelhead before and was learning to Spey cast. Camp director Greg Kennedy was providing a few suggestions. Despite the Arctic wind, she made consistently good casts. It was apparent she was both athletic and a quick learner. The next day she hooked her first steelhead. By the end of our stay she had landed three for sampling.
Steelhead fishing is more than skill. It is attitude—you need optimism with each cast and swing of the fly. Siipola, throughout her stay, was a picture of belief in “another day to do heroic deeds.”
As I turned north to hike the 3-plus miles to the Snotalvayam, the little ATV vehicle, sometimes driven at Grand Prix speeds by Aleksander Andrukhin (“Big Sasha”) shot past me. Brian Roberts and Andy Jenkins clung gamely to the roll bar. After an hour-and-a-half hike, I caught up with them at a high bluff overlooking a great bend in the Snotalvayam. The river’s silver turns threaded their way downstream through a vast tidal plain to the Sea of Okhotsk 10 river miles away. At higher tides the river backs up to this bend. Steelhead move upstream just ahead of the tide—often leaving visible wakes. Sometimes a broader wave moves upstream, indicating a large group of steelhead migrating together.
The anglers sent out rhythmic Spey casts through the continuous gusts of wind rippling upstream, or sometimes cross-stream into their faces. Between gusts, the river surface was a long slick reflecting the sky. The steelhead were there just ahead of the tide. Now and then a wake or a swirl revealed their presence. The vista from the bluff provided the scenic photo opportunity I had come for. The sampling? Any success seemed unlikely; the water was opaque brown.
Suddenly, while I was composing a last camera shot, the water erupted at midpoint through the swing of Robert’s distant fly as the shutter clicked—his body bent forward with the rod pointed straight downstream. A minute later the line went slack. In the next 15 minutes, they hooked, played, but eventually lost five steelhead. Not good for scientific sampling, but as an indicator of steelhead abundance it was impressive. Fishing for steelhead with a fly does not get much better. Given the water height and color, it was miraculous!
The chances for a swinging fly to encounter a steelhead in water with 8 inches of visibility are minuscule—unless there are large numbers of steelhead. There were days with similar water conditions in 1995 and 1996, but there were typically zero steelhead encounters.
Due to unusually adverse river conditions, the number of steelhead tagged in 2019 was substantially below 2017 and 2018. However, the numbers of steelhead returning were likely similar all three years. The fact that any steelhead were caught by traditional fly-fishing methods was in itself remarkable, and evidence of both great steelhead abundance, and the pluck of the fly fishers who gave it their all every day. All odds were against their success.
According to Moscow State University biologists, in the 25 years since the KSP started, steelhead populations in the three rivers have dramatically expanded by a factor of four or five: Snotalvayam about 7,000 returning steelhead, Kvachina about 9,000, and Utkholok about 20,000. In the short span of two or three generations, steelhead populations in KSP rivers have rebounded to levels considered similar to that at the time of Georg Steller 280 years ago, thanks to protection and monitoring through the KSP. Where else around the North Pacific Rim is this the case today?
Fleeing the Storm
Threatened by another incoming cyclone/blizzard, we folded our tents and left the Kvachina by helicopter a few days early. The Russians who remained to take down the camp were buried under 8 inches of new snow, and still the ice travelers continued to arrive in the river. These fish extended around much of the North Pacific Rim during the last ice age. Kamchatka is where they remain, waiting for whatever comes in the next 10,000 years.
Will North American steelhead—stressed by continuing habitat degradation and the drain of hatchery steelhead—similarly remain? The answer is in Kamchatka, where the fabric for survival remains whole, and we in North America can still learn to weave our tattered steelhead populations back together.
*Bill McMillan helped found the Wild Fish Conservancy in 1989 and served as chair for ten years. He is the author of Dry Line Steelhead and Other Subjects (1988) and coauthor of May the Rivers Never Sleep (2012) with his son John McMillan. He has snorkeled and observed steelhead in rivers throughout Oregon and Washington, documenting the region’s rich salmon and steelhead legacy.