Wild and Wet Winter — Steelhead Handling and Releasing

Mike Wier 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.

Winter steelhead season is winding down here in California with many of the coastal fisheries closing in a few days and more storms on the horizon.  It’s been a great year to be a fish.  Not as fortuitous for us anglers but it’s hard to complain about having lots of water in our rivers and knowing the fish had optimal chances at a successful spawn that will ensure healthy populations for years to come.  There were a few great windows for fishing and I hope some of you got to have a moment with one of our coastal unicorns.  As winter steelhead season winds down I reflect back on this column and also hope that some of you out there have learned a few things and if nothing else it made you take a moment to think about how special our wild salmonids are and in particular, wild winter steelhead.

The incredible journey of these fish really is a miracle of nature.  Just in the fact alone that they can so quickly change their physiology to be able to move back and forth from fresh to salt water.  That’s a pretty neat card trick and something not too many other fish can do.  Then when you think about how little we know about where they go once they are in the ocean and the types of hazards and predators they have to evade to make it back to our coastal streams.  It’s truly amazing.  Steelhead are one of the most highly adaptable fish out there with their ability to tolerate temperature variances, choices in the life history strategies they can display and ability to move back and forth from salt to fresh water ecosystems and feed in both, yet they are also very delicate when it comes to catching and handling them.

I can admit I was pretty darn excited the first few times I caught a steelhead and the first thing on my mind once I landed them was to hoist the fish up for a big grip and grin photo to show off my epic catch to my friends and to have a great trophy to remember that fish forever.  In fact, early in my fishing career I pretty much made a living off grip and grin photos.   I’ve got books of old photos that go way back before social media.  My friends and family often tease me and say I have more old photos of fish then I do of any of my friends or family from growing up.  But as I’ve gotten more seasoned as an angler and learned more about these animals through these various scientific studies and resources like the CalTrout SOS report, the more I understand how fragile they really are.  By taking a few easy steps we can minimize harm to these fish.

In recap, please be kind to all fish you plan on releasing.  Use barbless hooks, wet your hands before touching the fish, minimize exposure to air by keeping them in the water with their heads facing into the current, never touch their gills, squeeze them tight around their guts or grab them by the jaw and hoist them vertical out of the water.  Use fish friendly nets and don’t slap fish up onto the rocks or even into the dry grass.  Get your camera or photographer ready and take photos quickly while keeping the fish in the water or at least it’s head and most of its gills.  Release fish as quickly as possible, minimize fight times if water temps are high and or consider not fishing at all if temperatures are too high, fish are visibly spawning or flows are low and clear and the fish are vulnerable.  These are all just suggestions and the main thing is still to go out and have fun and enjoy the outdoors and our natural resources.  Thanks for tuning in.

Michael Wier

California Trout


CalTrout:  to learn more about California winter run steelhead

Keepemwet Fishing:  to learn more about Keepemwet priniciples

Lost Coast Outfitters:  blog on many things fly fishing related