Not Quite Hatchery Trout, Not Truly Wild

The slaughter was shocking. Hadn’t these guys ever heard of catch and release!? What if everyone felt entitled to show up and haul out 3 of these every time they were at the Lake Erie tributaries?

 

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I like native fishes and I don’t like crowds. Hence, I have ignored steelhead trout within the state of Pennsylvania over the last two decades.

 

Link to another recent steelhead and burbot post.

 

That is, until a few years ago. I thought that maybe steelhead were showing up in places they weren’t meant to be or at least places few looked for them and so I started at one edge of Pennsylvania’s steelhead alley, checking every flowage that ran into Lake Erie. This was my kind of fishing: going up on no-one’s advice but my own and certainly escaping the notorious steelhead crowds. And from day one, I started finding fish in strange places.

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Last week I had my most successful steelhead fishing day ever, hitting my 3 fish limit in just over 2 hours while taking my turn as fish man/net man with my dad. He also took 3 and one of the only other persons in the vicinity photographed dad and I on the lake shore with a stringer of 6. This was likely not only our best steelhead day but possibly our most successful day of trout fishing ever. We’re pictured up at the top.

 

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The burgeoning stringer, however, raises questions. About half the fishermen looking at this will approve while half will disapprove. The catch-and-release ethic has become pervasive in the post-2000 era and to some a slaughter like this is downright immoral. Obviously, I don’t think so but the matter of steelhead harvest and conservation is anything but simple. I continue to mull it all over myself and I certainly can’t claim to have all the right answers but here are some of the big questions we all ought to think about when deciding to harvest or release Lake Erie’s steelhead trout:

 

Should we extend good conservation practices to non-native species? This is the primary question I think one has to deal with when fishing for Great Lakes salmonids. I lean toward a simple, “No” but there are more levels to this conversation. In general, introduced fishes cause ripple effects of unforeseen consequences through the realm of native fishes and broader aquatic ecosystems – something understood now but not really understood in 1960 when these fish first arrived in Lake Erie. In short, the verbiage of Stephen King’s Pet Cemetery may well apply to the steelhead you’ve landed:  “Sometimes dead is better.”

 

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If we do want to conserve them, should basic Selective Harvest principles apply? To the uninitiated, Selective Harvest is a fish conservation system pioneered by the In-Fisherman organization during the 1980’s. I can’t overstate the influence In-Fisherman’s various publications had on me during this formative era and I became a devotee of Selective Harvest both practicing and teaching it from Maine to Florida. This remains a very simple basic framework for deciding to keep or release. Of course, legal bag and size limits come first but beyond this, a fisherman essentially releases his largest fish. I always go around with a size in inches in mind for each species above which I release. This is an over-simplification for the space constraints of a quick blog post but the idea is to release the largest fish which will, in general, lay the most eggs and pass on the genes of large fish.

 

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Is Selective Harvest a good fit for Lake Erie’s steelhead?

The received wisdom on Erie steelies is that natural reproduction is not a factor – they’re just stocked into each tributary annually as smolts by the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission. They then spend a year or more pelagically cruising the lake before returning to the tributary into which they were inserted. But in the primary stream I fish, there is good gravel redd habitat and I’ve seen smolts. I’m not the only one who’s noticed them and my little stream isn’t the only place this is happening.

 

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How does our view of steelhead conservation change when propagation shifts from hatchery-based toward natural?

Is there any chance that with reduced bag limits, we could see future steelhead runs of reduced numbers but self-sustaining propagation?

 

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Releasing some or all of our steelies might seem like the wise or maybe just the nice thing to do at times. But what lake and stream organisms suffer when steelhead are present in large numbers? In particular, what about the sculpins, darters, minnows and others that do or should occupy the tributaries of Lake Erie? What about displacement of other large native fishes that should be making runs at the same time?

 

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But here’s the other side of that coin: What organisms are benefiting from the presence of steelhead? Specifically, what forms of stream life benefit from the infusion of nutrient-rich eggs transported annually toward the headwaters? Which species have altered their habits to fit with this fairly reliable nutrient infusion over the last 60 years or so? Which species, beyond the fish realm, such as mink, otter and eagle benefit from the steelhead run?

 

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Here’s another perspective from which to see it all though: Lake Erie is not the same lake it was when the first coureur du bois paddled its rocky shoreline. The nutrient dynamics of the lake were altered by land clearing. An artificial nutrient enrichment followed with agriculture, sewer proliferation and early industry. Waves of new invasives have been sweeping the lake for two hundred years from the carp to the round goby. Photic depth diminished in a brownish phytoplankton haze and then a newly introduced biofilter, the zebra mussel, left the lake more crystal-clear than ever.

Why would we expect this lake to still be the right habitat for native Great Lakes fishes?

 

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Link to a similar article on Lake Ontario salmon here.

 

 

Along another train of thought entirely, steelhead trout are one of the most nutritious things you could be eating, even compared to other wild foods. This is because of the fatty acids that permeate their oily meat, unlike walleye, perch, bass and sunfish. And there’s no debate concerning farm-raised fish when you catch these from the lake and they weren’t transported here from somewhere like Chile. All points in favor of filling the creel.

 

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Finally, I wonder whether it’s simply time to accept the steelhead as a part of the Lake Erie ecosystem. They’ve been here for about 60 years now and seem to have found an open niche in the open waters of this vast lake – pursuing non-native pelagic forage and pleasing thousands of anglers from Pennsylvania and far beyond. If we stopped stocking them next year and fished the last of them out, Lake Erie would still be far from its primeval ecology. Maybe it’s time to admit that, yes, this is one of Pennsylvania’s very finest fisheries, a fishery that seems to be working well for anglers, for Lake Erie and for these western trout.

What do you think?

 

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