Wild and Wet Winter — Steelhead Breathing and Recovery

California steelhead

It’s Wednesday’s Wild and Wet Winter … a California Trout, Keepemwet Fishing and Lost Coast Outfitters initiative celebrating California’s wild winter steelhead.

With another storm system about to roll through California, options for connecting with a wild, winter steelhead are going to be a bit limited. It will certainly be a good while before the mainstem Eel drops into shape.

So maybe this is a good time to revisit some of the science underlying keeping fish wet and the evolution of catch and release fishing.

Here’s a summary of an article written by Keepemwet Fishing Science Advisor, Dr. Andy Danylchuk.

“Fish breathe by moving water in through the mouth, over the gills and out the gill flaps (operculum). Fish like steelhead, salmon, and trout, actively pump water by a coordinated set of movements involving the mouth and operculum. Water flowing the opposite way, like when moving a fish backward, does not aid respiration.

Taking fish out of the water stops dissolved oxygen from getting into the blood via the gills. The gills are not adapted to capture oxygen from air.

After being exercised on the end of a fishing line, it is additionally stressful to a fish to take it out of the water and stop respiration. There are tricks for minimizing air exposure, like asking whoever is taking a photo to call the shots and get the angler to keep the fish in the water until the camera is ready. Work to submerge more of the opercula when taking shots of fish just out of water. That being said, the goal for ‘responsible angling’ should be to eliminate air exposure altogether.

Fish that experience considerable physiological stress due to exercise and handling can lose coordinated movements of fins and lose equilibrium. Hold the fish completely under water while pointing the head into the current. Support the fish gently and move the front hand behind the operculum to better promote respiration.

It can take hours for a fish to physiologically and physically recover from an angling event. Minimizing handling time and eliminating air exposure will greatly reduce recovery time.”


CalTrout: to learn more about California winter run steelhead

Keepemwet Fishing: to learn more about Keepemwet principles

Lost Coast Outfitters: blog on many things fly fishing related