Cue the Whining

Steelhead runs slower this winter; reasons for it differ

By Jeffrey L. Frischkorn
Contributing Writer
Mentor, Ohio - Bob Ashley believes rust is showing up on Ohio's steelhead program.

The Mentor trout-fishing expert has experienced a frustrating steelhead fishing season thus far. His to-date catch is way below previous years. It's more like when the DNR Division of Wildlife first started stocking trout, and not now, with an annual planting of 400,000 fish.

"I'm 469 fish behind where I was last year at this time," Ashley said.

Then again, Ashley is not alone. Other steelheaders are reporting dismal catches as well.

"This has been one of the worst years I've ever seen. I think maybe it's partially due to low water conditions and a number of other variables," said Les Ober, an Ohio Central Basin Steelheaders board of directors member.

At first, many anglers were willing to tolerate officials' thoughts that the fall run was slowed by a lack of water in the streams. That logic can no longer apply, some of these trout seekers said.

"No doubt about it, though, if we don't see a good run this spring, we'll know that something is up and then we'll have something to worry about," Ober said.

They may be on to something. Fisheries experts in Pennsylvania have their own theory as to why the lake-run take of steelhead in that state has proven abysmal this fishing season.

Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission fisheries biologists believe Lake Erie's abundant crop of large walleye are feasting on the horde of stocked steelhead smolt.

"We do see an inverse relationship between adult walleye abundance and the quality of the steelhead fisheries two years later, even back in the 1980s when we also had strong walleye populations," said Chuck Murray, Lake Erie Unit Supervisor for the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission. "We didn't realize the impact of that predation until this past year."

Then again, Ohio's fisheries biologists have their own thoughts regarding the matter. And their opinions don't exactly mesh with those of their Pennsylvania counterparts.

"We know that low water conditions are still a factor. And we expect that once we get into good water conditions, the runs will be better. Certainly, they'll pick up speed," said Kevin Kayle, manager of the wildlife division's Fairport Harbor Fisheries Research Station.

Kayle also is the agency's steelhead program facilitator/manager.

Another possibility for a drop in steelhead returns is potential severe mortality on the trout by the invasive and predatory sea lamprey, Kayle said.

"Last year, we saw that the wounding on trout caused by sea lampreys had increased, based on surveys done by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and prior to treatment of the Grand River and Conneaut Creek with a lampricide," Kayle said.

However, the wildlife division does not believe predation by large walleye on stocked 6-inch steelhead smolt is much of a factor. At least not in Ohio's share of Lake Erie, Kayle said.

The wildlife division argues that most of Lake Erie's spawning walleye are in the lake's western basin at the time the state is stocking five rivers with steelhead smolt. Annually, the state stocks about 400,000 steelhead into the Vermilion, Rocky, Chagrin and Grand rivers, along with Conneaut Creek. Lakewide, there are about 2 million steelhead stocked by the various states and the Province of Ontario.

"There may be a small incidence of foraging by larger walleye, but we have not been able to corroborate that with our work," Kayle said. "We continue to see the walleye eating smelt, gizzard shad and emerald shiners, which is not to say there isn't seasonal predation on steelhead smolt."

But as compensation for a decline in angler success, the idea of annually stocking a greater amount of trout is not in the picture. This is because of the wildlife division's current limited steelhead production capabilities, Kayle said.

The state's coldwater trout hatchery at Castalia, near Sandusky, is undergoing a multimillion dollar renovation, which will be completed no later than 2013. At that time, the hatchery's ability to produce larger - and possibly, more - trout will materialize, Kayle said.

Yet, if Ohio wants to increase its stocking of steelhead, the state would need to present its plan to the Lake Erie Committee of the Great Lakes Fisheries Commission, which would have say in any expansion, Kayle said.

"That would be based on the health of the lake and its forage base," he said. "But we're not prepared to do that now because of our limited capacity and because of our budget."

Supporting a number of Kayle's views is Jerry Darkes, another Steelheaders group board member.

"We certainly had less-than-ideal conditions this fall, but I still think that when the snow and ice are gone we'll see a pretty strong surge of fish. I'm hopefully optimistic, and maybe we'll do even better this spring because we didn't get the runs earlier," Darkes said.

In the end, however, Kayle thinks Ohio's steelhead anglers need to accept some variability in their success. The region's best steelheaders have grown accustomed to daily catching numbers of fish in the double digits, Kayle said.

"There will be years that will be stellar and years that are just good. Anglers also will have to accept that our good years are better than the best years in some other states," Kayle said.

Murray heartily agrees.

"Even though we're seeing below-average catch rates, it's still one of the best fisheries around. For a lot of people, a 5-pound steelhead is the largest trout they'll ever catch," Murray said.

But anglers like Ashley are not buying any of the biologists' arguments.

"This is the first 'off' season I can recall. I think I need to take some blood-pressure medicine," Ashley said.

Some people on the Alley are just spoiled rotten. These guys have no idea how good they have it. Compared to other steelhead fisheries, the Alley is like the trout pool at the sportsman show - jammed packed with fish. I remember first fishing the Alley and I couldn't believe the number of fish I caught. It wasn't 3 or 4, but 12 or 20. There were times when I caught over 40. I though it should been called the Cannery not the Alley, due the sheer number of fish, especially in Pennsylvania.

But even Steelhead Shangri-La can have a bad year, but even a bad year is a hell of better than most fisheries on the West Coast. There are a lot of factors that can tip the scales such as low water, walleye and lamprey predation, and heavy rainfall. There is also the fact that a lot of Lake Erie steelhead don't imprint very well on the streams of stocking. So these often will run up streams that have the best conditions and those can be in either New York, Ontario or Pennsylvania.

But that still doesn't stop the bitching. The prefect example is the loser complaining about being down 469 fish. Is this guy serious? I'll bet he carries one of those clickers commonly used by perch anglers. If he thinks he needs to take blood pressure medication for a "off" season here, he'll need a new heart and the works if he had to move to BC.