Sunday, July 27, 2008

McCloud River Rainbow

Photo by Billy Smith Polaroid Images by El Pescador


Aspen - the Fishdog said...

McCloud Connection


The photo of the California's McCloud River struck close to home here in Ohio. The original migratory rainbows transported to the Great Lakes area in the 1870's were from the McCloud River.

Among a host of other waters, Michigan's Little Manistee River received some of the earliest plantings of these fish. No other rainbow strains were ever put in the Little Manistee. It is a wild fishery supported by natural reproduction of these fish for many decades. These original McCloud River rainbows have had 50 or so generations to adapt to the rigors of the Great Lakes area.

Ohio's steelhead program is based on stocking fish that are raised from fertilized eggs collected from fish out of the Little Manistee River. They are close to, but not quite a true wild fish. As EP has experienced, they grow large, fight extremely well, and love to eat flies, even in the cold waters of winter.

El Pescador said...

Anonymous said...

Having spent some time fishing for “steelhead” on Argentina’s Rio Santa Cruz, I was amazed to find that these too are descendents of the ubiquitous McCloud rainbow, by a rather circuitous route. As I understand it, these big, gorgeous, ocean going rainbows originally came to the Rio Santa Cruz about a 100 years ago from Ireland, of all places, for market aquaculture. The hatchery on the Santa Cruz obtained McCloud stock from Ireland and began raising them as food fish. Gradually, over the years, some escaped and eventually, a breeding population took hold in the river. From these fish, at some point, a certain percentage began to venture out to the Atlantic, and found incredibly fertile near shore waters teeming with bait.

The first documented “steelhead” was caught on the Santa Cruz in 1987. As the numbers of sea-run fish began to increase, rumors circulated north and an actual steelhead fishery began there relatively recently. It might be the only steelhead run in the world that is actually growing!

I had always assumed someone had planted Skamania stock or other known hatchery steelhead breeds down there, so the actual history came as something of a shock to me. It’s also a testament to the adaptability of the McCloud rainbows to not only survive such a foreign environment, but to thrive. From my relatively small sample, I would also say they have physically adapted to the heavy current, lack of structure and cloudy, glacial water in several ways: Santa Cruz fish seem to have proportionally bigger eyes and fins than our steelhead, and have a very pale coloring that matches the grayish-blue water they inhabit. Probably due to the incredible amount of nearshore feed in the Western Atlantic, they are also much thicker in girth with smaller heads than our fish. It’s an amazing example of evolution happening quickly and visibly.

Are they truly “steelhead?” I don’t really know. If a steelhead is simply defined as an ocean-going rainbow, then yes. But these fish descended from non-migratory rainbow stock that had been hatchery inbred for many generations. And their life history is distinctly different from our Northwest steelhead. Instead of spending two to four years at sea, these fish, according to Dr. Thomas Quinn of the University of Washington, typically spend only four months a year in salt water, and return to live in the river and spawn every year.

It sure lends credence to the findings of Bill McMillan and others about the importance of the resident rainbow component of healthy steelhead rivers. The fact that most of our steelhead streams once had significant resident rainbow fisheries, and that they are now nearly non-existent from over harvest may be a major contributor to the declines we are witnessing in traditional steelhead rivers. Seeing that “steelhead” can evolve from non-migratory stock points to the importance of a resident rainbow population as “safety net” for steelhead populations.

I would be interested to know if any of this South American McCloud story fits in with how steelhead came to be in the Manistee or other Great Lakes rivers.

I’m also going to try like hell to get back to the Rio Santa Cruz, as it’s a very intriguing fishery. Huge river, miles of unfished water, hardly anyone fishing it (on the stretch we fished, covering maybe 20 miles of river, we never saw another angler for a week) and most impressively, a steelhead population that appears to actually be increasing. How refreshing.