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Wild Steelhead Conservation

Wild Steelhead Conservation
The Yakama Nation captures post-spawn wild steelhead and keeps them in yurt-shaped holding tanks while they recover and gain weight for next year’s spawning cycle. Photo: Michael Hamilton

At the turn of the 20th century, huge numbers of wild steelhead returned from the sea to spawn in tributaries of the Columbia and Snake rivers. But current populations of wild steelhead, Oncorhynchus mykiss, have dwindled to a fraction of their historic levels. Today several runs of steelhead in the Columbia River Basin are threatened, and listed for protection under the 1973 Endangered Species Act (ESA).

Causes for these declines include a host of environmental and human-induced factors. Federal dams were built for flood control and irrigation. Stocks were over harvested. Access to spawning tributaries has been blocked. Clear-cutting caused soil erosion. Towns and settlements were built atop gravel beds where steelhead had laid their eggs for millennia. In truth, historic steelhead migrations have long since been consigned to history books, and live on only in the oral traditions of local Native American tribes. However, sometimes history has a way of informing the future before a species reaches its tipping point and vanishes.

Men in "Kelts"

Outside the Yakama Nation Fish Hatchery in Prosser, Washington, Joe Blodgett stands ready over a table filled with syringes, glass test tubes, forceps, and measuring tape that best resembles a field triage station.


"Kelt is the term biologists use to describe a post-spawned steelhead," says the fish biologist and hatchery manager. "Steelhead are iteroparous. This means they can spawn repeatedly, one, two, or even three times." An hour before, several adult steelhead were captured at the hatchery after they spawned upstream in the Yakima River, a tributary of the Columbia River. Time is critical. "Let's go. Bring me the first fish," shouts Blodgett.


Since 1999, the Columbia River
Inter-Tribal Fish Commission (CRITFC) that consists of the Yakama and Colville tribes in Washington State, the Nez Perce in Idaho, and the Warm Springs Tribe in Oregon, have collaborated on strategies to bolster repeat spawning kelts in the lower Columbia River in order to increase wild steelhead survival.

The Yakamas were first to begin kelt reconditioning in 2000. Today, not many kelts are left in the Columbia. It is estimated that only about 2 percent of Columbia River steelhead successfully spawn twice. Of the millions that embark on the outward migration every year, only a few thousand ever make it back to ensure that the species survives another cycle.

Blodgett says that the kelt reconditioning program is trying to capitalize on the steelhead's inherent iteroparity. "We capture kelts in the spring. They float downstream like giant smolts from their spawning redds. We intercept them at the hatchery and select the strongest for reconditioning."

Often kelts arrive exhausted, bruised, and battered from spawning. Without intervention, almost all of them will die, says Blodgett, and not survive their long migration to the sea, let alone a return trip back up the Columbia.


"There's probably no way they have the energy to navigate over eight dams on the Columbia to get home," says Blodgett. "So we remove them from the river and select the healthy ones for reconditioning. We want to give these fish another chance to spawn naturally."

Apprehension builds as an assistant prepares to gently net one of the captured kelts from a portable holding cart and place the fish on the table in front of Blodgett. Too late, Blodgett warns, "Watch out for the splash!"

Everyone laughs as the adult steelhead sends a spray that drenches the assistant. Tensions ease. Moving quickly over the fish like an ER doc would examine a patient, Blodgett calls out length and weight. He scans for a PIT tag, and inserts a new one if needed. Takes a scale sample. Injects the fish with an antibiotic. Inspects the gills for parasitic copepods. All in less than 90 seconds. Pausing in between inspecting each fish, Blodgett explains the importance of PIT tags.


PIT stands for passive integrated transponder. It is a harmless implant into the fish. It's about the size of a grain of rice, and can store up to 34 billion different codes.

The tag also has a tiny antenna that allows researchers to collect its coded information with a data scanner from a distance of 2 feet.

Fish implanted with PIT tags can be monitored easily and repeatedly when they migrate downstream and when they return to spawn because all of the dams on the Columbia and Snake rivers have PIT tag scanners on the fish ladders that can identify a specific fish, smolt, or adult. "The PIT tags are like your Social Security number," says Blodgett. "It's a 14-digit code. We can track fish as they move downstream and estimate the size of runs, for both steelhead and salmon, as they return."

After each analysis, the kelts are carefully deposited into one of four large tanks that resemble circular covered yurts. The adults live in 57-degree, freshly circulated well water. They are closely examined and treated for disease, and monitored for growth and gonad development. They are fed a three-stage diet beginning with krill, then krill and pellets, and finally only pellets about five weeks before their fall release. After six to eight months of reconditioning, the kelts are released into the Yakima River coincident with the peak of upstream pre-spawn steelhead migration. Blodgett says that kelts in good condition, and those with bright coloration at the time of collection, are more likely to survive after reconditioning.

"When we release them they are bright, strong, healthy fish. They look like they are fresh from the salt," he says. "There is simply no downside and no risk to kelt reconditioning. We give these fish another shot at spawning naturally, with the goal of increasing the survival and potential repeat spawning rates of wild steelhead."

Steelhead populations in the Yakima River may well be responding to kelt reconditioning. Wild steelhead counts at Prosser Dam have exceeded 6,000 fish every year since 2009. This compares to an annual average of fewer than 2,000 fish from 1983 to 2008.

From 2001 to 2011 a total of 9,738 kelts migrating downstream were captured at the Prosser hatchery. On average, according to Bill Bosch, senior data analyst for the Yakama Nation, this represented about 27 percent of each annual wild steelhead return. "Annual survival to release ranged from 2 to 62 percent and averaged 38 percent over the course of the study, with surviving reconditioned kelts showing increases in fork length, weight, and Fulton's K condition -factor."

//www.flyfisherman.com/files/2014/03/Steelhead-Second-Upstream-Spawning-Migration-Fly-Fisherman.jpg
After spawning, steelhead are weak, and most do not survive the downstream trip to the ocean, let alone a second upstream spawning migration. Photo: Michael Hamilton

Another Model

The Yakama Nation's success has led the Nez Perce Tribe in Idaho to start a similar kelt reconditioning program. "We have two models," says Scott Everett, manager of the Nez Perce Tribes Kelt Reconditioning Program. "We are working with both hatchery and wild steelhead."

Everett says the hatchery model involves collecting approximately 200 kelts annually at the Dworshak National Fish Hatchery on the Clearwater River, a major tributary of the Columbia River. The hatchery steelhead are artificially spawned by injecting low-pressure air into the abdomen of the fish to gently expel the eggs. This allows the eggs and milt (semen) to be collected and later combined.

More importantly, "air spawning," keeps the fish alive with a chance to spawn again. In the traditional artificial spawning process the eggs are surgically removed and the fish dies.

"In essence we are experimenting on a few hatchery fish to make sure we don't make costly mistakes with wild stock during kelt reconditioning. It's allowed us to move forward much more quickly," says Everett. By studying the diets of the hatchery fish as well as measuring the dosage of antibiotics administered to fight parasitic diseases, Everett says they are better able to understand how to improve kelt reconditioning techniques on wild steelhead.

The second model of the Nez Perce program closely mirrors the Yakamas'. Snake River B-run female wild steelhead are collected as they migrate through Lower Granite Dam on the Snake River. The B-run is a strain of summer steelhead that travel up the Snake River and enter the Clearwater and Salmon rivers to spawn. Lower Granite is the most upstream dam in the Snake River system. It has a fish ladder to aid upstream migration of salmon and steelhead, and removable spillway weirs that improve passage for juvenile fish migrating downstream.

"We collect the kelts at the juvenile bypass in the spring as they head downstream toward the ocean. We look at their condition and decide if they are candidates for reconditioning," explains Everett. "We truck the kelts we keep to the Dworshak National Fish Hatchery. Like the Yakamas, we apply metabolic and reproductive endocrinology for each kelt before placing them in large circular tanks with anti-jumping curtains."

Based on an estimate of about 3,000 wild B-run adult female steelhead at Lower Granite, Everett says the tribe hopes to get an additional 200 wild B-run females to return to Lower Granite Dam. "The scale is fairly small, but we are also reconditioning hatchery B-run females, which should be available for harvest. The numbers have changed a bit since the original analysis was completed, so the 3,000 is a little off, but that is what we are working with right now." Since initiating their kelt reconditioning program in 2007, Everett says they have documented a 6 percent increase in the number of wild B-run adult steelhead returning to Lower Granite Dam.

//www.flyfisherman.com/files/2014/03/Reconditioned-Wild-Steelhead-Fly-Fisherman.jpg
Reconditioned wild steelhead are released back into the river bright and healthy for repeat attempts at spawning. Photo: Michael Hamilton.

Promising Future

It's somewhat ironic that funding to continue the kelt reconditioning program comes from the agency that manages what many claim was the major reason for the demise of wild fish runs in the Columbia River Basin: hydroelectric dams.

"We allocate approximately $2.5 million annually that is dedicated to research, capital improvements, and program analysis," says the Bonneville Power Administration's Kevin Wingert. The Bonneville Power Administration (BPA) is a federal nonprofit agency based in the Pacific Northwest. Although BPA is part of the U.S Department of Energy, it is self-funding and covers its costs by selling its products and services to consumers in eight western states. BPA markets wholesale electrical power from 31 federal hydro projects on the Columbia River and its tributaries that make up the Columbia River Basin. The dams are operated by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and Bureau of Reclamation.

BPA, along with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and Bureau of Reclamation, have worked together to regulate flows in the Columbia to improve downstream and upstream fish migrations over the major dams.

Wingert says that steelhead kelt reconditioning is a good example of how the BPA is striving to protect and rebuild fish and wildlife populations affected by hydroelectric power development in the Columbia River Basin. "The portion of monies for kelt reconditioning comes from the Columbia Basin Fish Accords agreement, signed in 2008 by the BPA, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Bureau of Reclamation, and the four tribes."

Dr. Dave Fast, senior biologist with the Yakama Nation, who has over 35 years of field experience in wild fish recovery, says the Columbia Basin Fish Accords have resulted in improved fish passage over dams, estuary habitat restoration, and innovative programs like steelhead kelt reconditioning.

"The future looks very promising," he says. "Any contribution of wild fish we get is a plus. Given adequate collection opportunities, the empirical results we have observed demonstrate that the potential steelhead kelt reconditioning will provide recovery benefits for imperiled wild steelhead populations in the Columbia River Basin." Funding for steelhead kelt reconditioning (steelhead conservation) is guaranteed through 2018.

Michael Hamilton is a former broadcast journalist. His awards include Associated Press and United Press International Reporter of the Year. He was nominated for two television Emmy Awards, and received three Edward R. Murrow Awards for Excellence in Broadcasting. He has been writing outdoor and travel freelance articles for a decade.

Best New Freshwater Rod

Scott Radian $795
Sometimes it's major improvements to rod blank technology that set a new rod apart. Other times, it's little functional switch-ups and cosmetic changes that woo consumers. In the case of the new Radian, it's both. Jim Bartschi and his crew at Scott Fly Rods have hit a home run.
The Radian uses Scott's X-Core design to create a wide, stable tube with thin, sensitive walls, along with ReAct technology to speed rod recovery time and reduce vibrations when the rod stops. Getting rid of these extra 'wobbles ' has been a goal of rod designers for a long time, and Scott seems to have brought us a step forward with a rod that casts with crispness and authority, but still has the feeling of connection you need in a trout tool. And while some might consider a rod handle 'cosmetic ' I'd have to disagree. Your grip, and the handle on the rod, can affect the way you cast, and a full wells grip reduces hand fatigue and is a better grip for a wider range of distances and conditions. Sage did it last year with the ONE series, and we may be seeing the beginning of a trend here with the full wells grip on the Scott Radian.
Another improvement is the REC wood-insert reel seat with an uplocking ring Bartschi calls 'self-indexing. ' What this means is that you don't have to spin the reel seat ring to find a proper alignment for the reel foot. It's always perfectly aligned in relation to the forward hood under the handle. It's a very small thing — and no one has ever failed to seat their reel properly due to lack of a self-indexing reel seat — but it shows that Scott is thinking about consumers, and considering just about every possible path to make things slicker and more convenient.
Other small details like Universal Snake guides with curved, 'radiused ' feet that fit slimmer on a rounded blank; alignment dots; and measuring wraps on the blank all add up to a rod that has forward-thinking design and higher performance in mind. The fly-fishing industry seems to agree, as the rod won Best Freshwater Rod at the 2013 International Fly Tackle Dealer show, and also overall Best in Show. The 4-piece rods are available in 4- to 8-weight models. scottflyrod.com

Best New Saltwater Line

Scientific Anglers Saltwater Grand Slam $85
Slackline casts are great when you're dry-fly fishing for trout, but in saltwater fishing, a slackline cast means that you'll have to retrieve line before you can come tight to the fly, and that lapse in effective movement often means the difference between catching fish and just seeing them. Florida Keys guide Capt. Bruce Chard is a master of coaching the short cast to the batter on the deck, but he's still watched too many bonefish and tarpon swim right past a stationary fly due to poor presentation. To combat this problem, he designed his Grand Slam line with an extremely short front taper that delivers excess energy to the fly so the leader turns over completely, and you can instantly swim the fly. The heavy head loads rods quickly for quick up-close casts, but a long rear taper (twice as long as most other saltwater lines) also helps you carry and control more line in the air for those opportunities where you actually get to make a hero cast. scientificanglers.com

Best New Saltwater Reel

Nautilus CCF-X2 $435 - $555
Low start-up inertia is easy when the drag is set low. The difficult thing is to have low inertia when the drag is set heavy. These lightweight, fully sealed reels have a sophisticated braking system that generates 20 pounds of drag with less than 1% start-up inertia. Here's how Nautilus made such a lightweight reel with heavyweight stopping power: The sealed drag has two friction surfaces — cork and carbon fiber — for double the surface area. Hybrid ceramic bearings and TPX bushings keep the weight extremely low yet perfectly align the axle to ensure that the spool tracks true at all settings. An oversize drag handle takes six full turns to go from zero to 20 pounds of drag. And the screw-off spool goes from left-hand to right-hand retrieve in minutes. nautilusreels.com

Best New Saltwater Rod

Sage Method $800 - [imo-slideshow gallery=145],050
although Sage isn't officially calling this a saltwater rod, we tested the new fast-action Method on the bonefish flats of South Andros Island and found it's the perfect tool for launching long, accurate casts in calm conditions where you can see the fish coming (and they can see you) from a long way off. And it's just as effectively when the wind is howling, and you need to make a powerful cast right into the teeth of a gale.
But since there are also 4- to 6-weights with wood insert real seats in the rod family, and nine different Spey and switch models, it's much more than a saltwater series — it's a high-performance casting tool for people who enjoy pushing the ceiling higher and higher. 'Sage's DNA is synonymous with fast-action rods, and through Konnetic Technology, we've taken seriously smooth, ultra-fast action performance to a new place entirely, ' said Sage chief rod designer, Jerry Siem. 'Our newest high-performance rods will make any caster better, but will also help experienced casters notch exceptional casts with regularity. ' sageflyfish.com

Best New Switch Rod

G.Loomis PRO-4x $480 - $575
about a year ago, G.Loomis introduced its new PRO-4x rod series — rods that mimic the actions of the top-of-the-line NRX series because they share the same tapers, but they don't use the same expensive resin systems and carbon fibers as G.Loomis's best-performing rods. What you're left with is a series of well-designed rods that are fun to cast, and affordable enough that you can get more than one. Initially, the PRO-4x was a family of single-handed rods, but in 2014 it's expanding to include switch and two-handed models for everything from trout fishing in big rivers to true Spey casting for anadromous species. Like previous PRO-4x rods, the switch and two-handed models use some tapers from the more expensive NRX series, so if you like the 13-foot, 8/9-weight NRX, you're likely to appreciate the same rod in the PRO-4x series. But you're even more likely to enjoy the price difference. With a trout rod, a PRO-4x is about $280 cheaper, but when you get into switch and Spey rods, the savings run up to $500 and more, and you still get much of the 'feel ' of a performance rod.
Although the series is based on NRX tapers, there are some original gems in the family. The 10'6" 5-weight PRO-4x has no equivalent in the NRX series, yet our tester thought it was 'the perfect trout switch rod. While most switch rods are actually too long and too heavy for extended use with one hand, this one is a real multipurpose tool that you can Czech nymph with, hit a snap-T when the bank is tight behind you, or cast dry flies to rising trout. ' gloomis.com

Best New Technology

Redington Super Dry Fly Waders $500
All breathable, waterproof fabrics in the outdoor industry are measured, evaluated, and compared by their moisture vapor transmission rate (MVTR), also described as the 'breathability ' of the fabric. And while the issue of which company has the more breathable fabric has been hotly contested for decades, the issue of how that moisture vapor gets to the membrane in the first place has been largely ignored . . . until now. Redington is the first to use a product called 37.5 in a new line of waders built with the idea of more effectively creating moisture vapor (you can't pass liquid sweat through a breathable membrane) and moving that vapor toward the membrane. The new 37.5 technology uses tiny particles of activated carbon and volcanic sand — both are filled with microscopic cavities, creating an incredible evaporative surface area for their weight and volume. These activated particles are embedded to the wader lining using a polyurethane binder to 'stick ' the microporous particles to the wader interior. According to 37.5 inventor Dr. Gregory Haggquist of Cocona Natural Technologies, this lining draws moisture away from your body, and drives it through the membrane, leaving a comfortable microclimate next your skin of about 37 to 38 percent relative humidity (hence the name). The new Redington Super Dry Fly Waders ($500) with a front zip, Super Dry Waders ($400), and Super Dry Pants ($280) are all constructed using Redington's sonic-welded seams and will be available in 2014. redington.com

Best New Trout Line

RIO Perception $90
RIO's new flagship trout line has made a core change, both figuratively and literally. The Perception trout line has a new low-stretch core — the first of its kind for polyvinyl chloride (PVC)-based fly lines. RIO won't say what its proprietary new core is made of, but it's not nylon monofilament or nylon multifilament, which are the traditional elastic materials for PVC fly line cores. If you've fished RIO's InTouch Deep lines, you've already felt the difference a low-stretch fly line can make to your contact with the fly, your sensitivity in detecting strikes, and your ability to set the hook when you feel the fish. Everything is more instant and efficient. But does it make a difference in your casting as well?
'Absolutely, ' said Simon Gawesworth, RIO marketing manager and a big part of the Perception design team. According to Gawesworth, a good caster can significantly stretch a standard fly line in the air by merely hauling the line, and this stretch is like a giant power drain when you're trying to move the fly efficiently. The Perception's low stretch — about 6% compared to about 30% in a standard fly line — lets you move the fly immediately instead of first stretching the line before you can move the fly.
We've tested the line extensively and found that it not only casts better, it mends more efficiently, picks up quickly and quietly, and gives you better control and more sensitivity for 'blind ' fishing subsurface with nymphs and streamers, where instant contact with the fish is the difference between hooking up, and missing a strike. In short, it's a more responsive line because the force you apply at your end of the rod is more immediately telegraphed through the line, and there is no 'dampening ' effect cause by line stretch. rioproducts.com

Best New Trout Reel

Tibor Signature Series $685
Ted Juracsik set the saltwater world on its head when he reinvented the Tibor brand with his Signature Series. The reels are lighter than the original Tibor series and have a sealed, waterproof drag system that's easy to change from right- to left-hand retrieve. The esthetics and stopping power of the Signature Series quickly made it a staple for everything for bonefish and redfish, up to billfish and tarpon with the giant 11-12 size. In 2014 this saltwater stalwart is coming down in size to a 31/4"x23„8" trout-size reel that holds 200 yards of 20-pound-test gel-spun backing and a 6-weight line. The 5-6 Signature reel has a lighter foot to balance with smaller trout rods, and there's also a speciality color scheme for the lightweight of the family that allows you to choose a distinctive lime, aqua, crimson, or black drag system to match with the standard frame and spool colors that Tibor has offered for years. tiborreel.com

Best New Wading Boot

Simms G4 Boa Boot $240
You've probably seen people jogging the streets barefoot, or maybe read the book Born to Run, which takes a close look at the podiatric health of barefoot cultures. The barefoot concept embraces the philosophy that you'll perform better if you allow your foot to do its work unencumbered. While you can't actually wade a river barefoot, the premise behind the G4 Boa Boot is that your foot is a complex appendage with tiny bones, ligaments, tendons, muscles, and nerves all working to keep you balanced and moving. If you eliminate feedback coming from the river bottom, you hinder your own ability for proprioception — the ability to sense the orientation and movement of the body and its parts. According to Brandon Hill of Simms, the key to the new boot is the sculpted TPU retention plate in the boot platform that allows the outsole to articulate so you can feel your way along the river bottom better, and use your foot the way it was designed. simmsfishing.com

Best Women's Waders

Orvis Silver Sonic Convertible-Top Waders $260
Comfortable and easy to move in, these convertibles give you options in warm weather. SonicSeam Technology ensures there are no bulky seams to rub in awkward places, and a flip-out interior pocket offers a secure place for valuables. The fabric is light, and packs down smaller than some competitors — important for ladies who travel. Orvis nailed the fit here — these are the best-fitting waders I've tried, and together with the convertible top, made these my favorite of all the women's waders I tested this year. orvis.com

Best Fiberglass Rod

Orvis Superfine Glass $400
After a several-decade hiatus from fiberglass, Orvis has come back into the glass game. Rod designer Shawn Combs at Orvis started the process several years ago. After a long period of testing, tweaking, and tuning, Orvis has finally released the Superfine Glass, rolled and assembled at the Orvis rod shop in Manchester, Vermont, and priced under $400. There is no excuse for any serious glass geek not to at least give these rods a try. I recently spent an enjoyable afternoon casting small foam hoppers to hungry brown trout in Wisconsin's Driftless Area using a 7' Superfine Glass. The little 3-weight handled the hopper without issue and rolled out accurate casts up to 40 feet without a problem. There is also a 7'6" 4-weight, and an 8' 5-weight in the series. orvis.com

Green Award

Fishpond Black Canyon $180
Fishpond has introduced 14 new fishing packs and vests for 2014 built with a strong, durable nylon material produced from recycled commercial fishing nets. Not only is Fishpond helping remove these old nets from the ocean and beaches by creating a value for them, but the high-tech recycling process uses 27% fewer natural resources and reduces greenhouse emissions by 28% compared to using virgin nylon.
One of the new products using recycled materials is the Black Canyon backpack. With an adjustable external frame, offset air mesh back, and padded, contoured shoulder straps, it helps carry heavy loads and keeps you cool while hiking into remote fishing destinations. The modular design lets it dock with many of the Fishpond's chest/lumbar packs, and two zip-out rod tube holders comfortably carry fly rods. The large main backpack compartment carries plenty of gear while three smaller pockets offer quick access to necessities. fishpondusa.com

Green Award

Simms DownUnder Merino Ziptop & Bottom $100-$120
These merino wool base layers aren't just manufactured in the U.S., the wool is raised on Montana ranches, and washed, spun into yarn, and woven into fabric, all without leaving the state. The wool is never bleached — an environmentally destructive process that can also remove the natural lanolins that help make Merino wool soft and naturally odor resistant. Because of the extraordinarily small diameter of the Merino fibers, this wool doesn't itch, and helps wick moisture away from the skin so you feel dry and comfortable. The garments are sewn in the Simms Bozeman factory using a flatlock stitch so they are both comfortable and stretchy enough to wear as a base layer. simmsfishing.com

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