The Smolt

The float pops and goes under. When I jerk the rod, I immediately know it's a smolt. It breaks the surface and tries to imitate the leaps that the adults are famous for. Despite its small size, it fights tenaciously. I calmly pull it in and gently grab it. In my hand is a 10 inch steelhead. It has all the features of the adult except for the cartoonish like eyes that are huge compared to its head. Not wanting to cause any injury, I pull the hook out delicately. They're the future of our fishery. I quickly release it and watch it dart back into the depths. 

What will become of that smolt? According to the state's fishery biologist, the odds of them reaching adulthood are not great. Lake Erie is the not the best nursery for them, considering over 40 million walleye and other gamefish generally don't pass up one of these juicy little smolts. The state releases over 400,000 of them into seven streams along the coast of Ohio. All of them are unceremoniously dumped into the river at the nearest boat ramp to the lake. There's no fanfare or press release. The truck is backed up and the hose is attached and out they go. It's a big change from the hatchery where they were nutured and feed with the greatest care. Now they're on their own. They will have the run the guantlet of predators and feed themselves. The fertile waters of Lake Erie will fuel their growth and the following year, they'll come back as a feisty 20" skipper. If they buck the odds even more, one of them might be that trophy steelhead that we dream about. 

I've always wonder what does the smolt do once they're dumped into the river? Will they linger? Or immediately head into the lake? Most of the smolts are content to hang out at the lower sections of the rivers, but some are more adventurous. I remember one year I was fishing the midsection of the Rocky River for carp in late June. I was standing on a gravel bar waiting for a carp to take my bait. Out of the corner of my eye, I watched a small fish herd a small school of minnows. At first I thought it was a young smallmouth bass. Then I noticed it was a smolt. I watched it methodically cut off any path of escape as it slowly moved the tight ball of minnows towards the shallow water. Despite its young age, it acted like a wily adult. The smolt slowly got into position and with lightening speed rushed the ball and grabbed one of the minnows. Instead of darting back into deeper water, it proudly swam off with its prize. That day the temperature was almost 80F and I'm sure the river was close to 70F. In their native habitat, they'll stay in their river of birth for a couple years before heading out the ocean. Ohio streams are not spring fed so they can't regulate their flow or temperature. If the summer is too dry, the river gradually slows to crawl and the water stagnates. The water temperature will go into the upper 70s which is pass their threshold. Was this smolt foolish to head too far upstream? Probably, but it has no clue. All it knows it needs to eat and grow. I eventually leave and wonder if that little fella will make it. 

I've often have this love/hate relationship with the smolt. They're crucial for the survival of the fishery as Steelhead Alley's streams can't sustain a natural reproducing fishery. But there's been times when I've cursed under my breath as I caught one smolt after another. I've liken them to a school of voracious piranhas. They will recklessly hit anything that resembles food. In most cases, I'll go upstream to get away from the aggravation. But most of the time, I'm usually done with steelhead as many of the smolts are released in late April. 

Without smolts I would most likely be stuck at home during the winter months growing fat and longing for the days of spring when I can go out and fish for bass or walleye or carp. That's why I take great care whenever I caught one. I whinch when I take the hook out. The odds of them reaching to adulthood are stacked against them.

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