Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Steel ... bows?

Stealing a cue from fellow blogger, Drew Price, I'd like to take this opportunity to once again venture into the ridiculous argument that is West Coast versus East Coast steelheading.

Put a cap in bobber-boy's ass
I'm yet to meet the man or woman who can adequately explain to me the differences between West Coast and East Coast (Great Lakes) steelhead. Lacking a degree in marine biology, and having no left coast experience, I can't say for sure that any of the chatter I've heard is either true or untrue. Finding someone to consult who has fished both coasts has proven difficult, which I think might be very telling in and of itself.

I've a tendency to focus my less than empirical eye - however momentarily - on the obvious. West Coast steelhead are anadromous while Great Lakes fish spend their lives in fresh water. After much research, I believe that this may be the only indisputable fact in what has been a prolonged and sometimes onerous debate. Aside from this nugget, there is little objective evidence of any difference between fish on opposite ends of the country.

Two strains of steelhead inhabit the Great Lakes, and as best I can tell, two strains of steelhead inhabit the West Coast. The first is Skamania. Skamania steelhead - as I'm sure you know - are a summer run fish that generally move into Great Lakes and coastal tributaries in late spring, and will sometimes continue on their spawning runs until early September. The second variety of steelhead found in each watershed are Washington strain. These fish begin their spawning runs in September, and will remain in the river until late spring. Both fish present intrepid bug chuckers with tremendous angling opportunities, especially during the winter months when one is generally limited to tying flies or spending time with the wife's family.

Science tells us the fish swimming the Great Lakes are genetically identical to those fish found out West. Indeed, the first plants of steelhead into the Great Lakes were done in Michigan, and the eggs used in those original stockings came from coastal fish. If Great Lakes steelhead are simply rainbow trout, then so too are those fish on the coast. Why then do some folks insist on calling Great Lakes steelhead, steelbows?

Seems to me that if they're steelbows here. They're steelbows there.

If you didn't know I was a Great Lakes fisherman, would you know this was an East Coast fish?

I think the demeaning chatter we sometimes read or hear about Eastern and Midwestern fish comes primarily from two sources. First - as one might expect - Great Lakes steelhead have any number of critics on the West Coast. These folks feel that for a steelhead to be a steelhead, the animal must be anadromous, spend the vast majority of it's life in the Pacific, and only enter coastal rivers when it is ready to spawn. Any steelhead that does not spend a significant portion of it's life in the salt is simply an outsized rainbow trout.

Again, science tells us that these anglers are absolutely wrong. The fish running West Coast rivers are the genetic dopplegangers of their East Coast counterparts.

These same folks might concede the common genetic roots of East Coast and West Coast fish, and instead choose to argue that while Great Lakes and ocean run steelhead share a common ancestor, they experience very different lives. To survive life in the world's oceans requires an animal to be made of hardier stuff than composes a freshwater fish. Coastal steelhead grow to larger proportions and fight with a ferocity that is generally lacking in freshwater steelhead. In a way, this is the piscatorial equivalent of the nature versus nurture debate. Fish are products of their respective environments.

Again, I cry shenanigans. An animal's environment may have an effect on that animal's behavior, but it does not change the fundamental, genetic character of the animal. That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.

And while I'm thinking of it ... can anyone ... anyone ... explain exactly how life in the Pacific makes for a gamier game fish than does life in Lake Superior, Huron, Michigan, Erie, or Ontario?


On to the second group of pundits.

These folks hail from the East Coast and the Midwest, and they actually fish the Great Lakes. They enjoy catching Great Lakes steelhead (although they might not admit it), but they want to be part of the West Coast club. Perhaps they need recognition. Perhaps they suffer from deep seated feelings of inadequacy. Perhaps their daddies never played catch with them. Regardless of the reason, the result is the same. Whether for feelings of inadequacy, the need to be accepted by West Coast naysayers, or the absence of paternal love, Easterners that refuse to embrace their own steelhead ... well ... they're just sad.

In the final analysis, I have to admit that I would love to fish for West Coast steelhead. The Olympic Peninsula appears to be a beautiful place, and I think I'd like to experience that kind of beauty. If that day ever comes, I might even concede to fish with a Spey rod and traditional flies. Why not? That does not mean, however, that I'm not grateful for what I have. The Great Lakes are tremendous fisheries, and I could do a lot worse than to fish here the rest of my days.


Shaq said...

Let me first temper this with saying that I am a lover of all things steelhead, great lakes and otherwise, know people that have fished both and can say unequivically (sp, and is that the right word?) that most of this debate is fun literary banter and when it comes right down to it, not really a debate heard much around the campfire. I know a few who are lucky enough to have fished both coasts, even some who grew up in one fishery but now reside in another. The fisheries are the same in their eyes. The difference is in the numbers of hatchery raised fish. In the west, there are hatcheries, (They are a threat to native stocks) but most of the fish, especially those caught by the swung fly, are wild. They seem to respond to the fly better. I have read that in systems that have 40% wild fish, 80% of the fly caught fish are wild. We talk all the time about how out west the fish are more aggressive. Show your fly to them and they will move, chase and hit it. Maybe there are 1 or 2 wild fish in a run, chances are you are going to catch them. Most anglers who grew up in the GL's and now live in the Pac NW that I have talked to acknowledge this. In our fishery, we show our flies to 100 hatchery fish in a run and maybe one takes, maybe not. It equates to about the same amount of hook-ups in the respective systems. I don't know if we in the GL's have an inferiority complex or get ashamed of some of the antics that get displayed on our rivers or of their reputations. I know this is the case for me. It's one of the reasons I do Spey Nation. Try and change some perceptions, open some eyes and give these magnificent gamefish the respect I think they deserve. I love taking our West Coast guests each summer fishing the day after SN on the Salmon. They find it beautiful and not at all what they expected. I find it interesting that you say you might fish the spey on the OP and yet argue that our fish are the same. Do our fish not deserve the same reverence in your eyes? They do in mine. The debate out here seems to be "Fish how you want" "don't tell me how to fish" "You think you're better than me?" but when we have meat hunters taking more than their limits to sell in restaurants down in the city, snaggers galore in salmon season, and shoulder to shoulder pictures being joked about and shown on the internet, what are the fish worshippers on the Left Coast supposed to think. It's not their idea of the Zen of Steelheading. They can't relate so they dismiss it as something lower. You know how I feel about anadromous fish, you get the lure of steelheading, when west coasters are around our campfires, they can see the passion, the arguement fades away quickly. We have the best steelhead runs in the world per river mile, It boggles my mind that Pulaski isn't Jackson Hole. It's just another dead upstate town where you can't get a good meal. Guys who spend thousands on the west coasts wouldn't step foot in Pulaski because of the rep it gets. It's a shame that the guides and lodge owners don't see the forest for the trees. Respect the fishery, your fellow fishermen and the resource and it could become something special. Genetics, science, lore, whatever. Steelhead are special no matter where they live and should be treated as such.

BKill said...

Not much to argue with there Geoff. All I would add is that I love my nymphs, and we have natural reproduction here. It's just a question of how much ... hence the fin clipping to begin in 2012. I think the whole discussion is ridiculous. This post was inspired by a string I followed on a steelheading forum, where some East Coast boys were trying to cozy up to the left coasters by deriding the fish we have here. Silly ...

shaq said...

Trout and Orwell pump out their fair share of steelhead for sure. Sometimes I think that we catch alot of wild fish in the mid river where we do alot of our fishing. I read a theory once that hatchery fish run rivers fast and gather within a mile of their birth, in this case hatchery, until spawn. Makes sense if you see the circus in altmar. Wild fish do the same thing but are born in different places. Hence the distribution out west. Interesting stuff and I think the debate should shift from east/west to what can we do to make the fishery better? Our fishery is still young, we'll come around.

Nushranger said...

All good writing here. I too find the whole east/west thing weird. I have fished out west in Oregon and BC for steelhead and have fishing in Canada for Atlantics. I do love the ingrained tradition of rotation that is Atlantic salmon fishing. That said I am not in general a big fan of tradition. It gives everyone a chance. As Geoff said there is so much meat mentality in our rivers that still is alive and well. To see people snag fish off of redds, to line fish and show disrespect not only to the fish but to fisherman. How many times have you been low-holed on that river? To me our rivers have so much potential yet its like they have a virus that is making them ill and there is limiited leadership by the community that has the most to gain ie the DEC enforcement of existing laws, the guides and local lodges. Now while I love the fish I have to change my mindset to really enjoy and appreciate the fishery and part of that means being willing to walk a long ways to find less fisherman and to not get to attached to the shenanigans that I might see on its banks.

Anonymous said...

It can be summed up pretty simply....a group of very good anglers were just out west Oregon ...3 days 5 guys swung up fish..maybe 8 lbs....wild ...only in the mind of the angler..hatchery fish!
East coast, atleast you have the chance to nail a wild or a hatchery fish thats 10lbs and up...and more than one in 3 days for stand in a river swingin your balls off with nada tug, or swinging your balls off and getting a few tugs a day...sounds like fun to me :)