Are Great Lakes Steelhead Really ‘Steelhead?’

Are Great Lakes Steelhead Really ‘Steelhead?’

Everyone loves a good debate. From politics and sports, to whether Big Foot exists, to which Kardashian is the worst (definitely Khloé), people will argue about absolutely anything. In the world of fishing, this couldn't be more true.

Anglers are always quick to defend their favorite species, techniques, or gear. While most of these arguments are fairly tame, there are some that anglers debate with all the fervent passion of "Macho Man" Randy Savage snapping into a Slim Jim. Most prominent among these triggering topics is whether the adfluvial rainbow trout found in the Great Lakes can truly be called "Steelhead."

East Side vs. West Side
Anglers sit in two very distinct camps on this subject, split by a divide crossing the center of the country. Essentially if you're from the East or Midwest, the Great Lakes fish are steelhead, but if you live in the West, they're simply big, lake-run rainbows.

I grew up on the East Coast and, just like everyone else, I've always referred to the Great Lakes fish as steelhead. It wasn't until I moved West and started pursuing the fish from the Pacific in Idaho, Washington, and Oregon that I even noticed this great line in the sand, gouged by the wading boots of the West Coast steelhead's passionate followers.

Even when I broached the subject of the Great Lake's fish with MeatEater's fishing editor, Washington native Sam Lungren, the first thing he said was, "Great Lakes steelhead? What ocean to do they go to?" It's a distinctive view, one that Pacific steelheaders adhere to unflinchingly despite any argument to the contrary.

If It Looks Like a Duck…
What makes a steelhead a steelhead? Is it the fact that they spend the bulk of their lives living in massive bodies of water where they struggle to survive? Is it their bright chromatic skins, which become more vibrantly colored the longer they spend in the river? Is it that their presence in a river creates an obsessive and dedicated following of anglers? Those anglers are often easy to spot because of their slavish devotion to the color pink and their odd habit of laughing manically and pulling their hair out when asked if they caught anything.

If all of these aspects define a steelhead and steelheader's character, then the fish running out of the Great Lakes definitely fit the bill. The fish migrate through the fall into the spring, just like their Pacific cousins. When they're born, they live a youthful existence as mild-mannered rainbow trout, before heading into the colossal abyss of the Great Lakes to become something more, something super. They return to the rivers in the autumn as leviathans sometimes pushing beyond 20 pounds, strengthened by the fertile waters of the lake.

If It Quacks Like A Duck…
While trout living in other lakes can grow to some massive proportions, such as the rainbows in the famous Jurassic Lake (Strobel) in Argentina or Hebgen in Montana, these fish generally just look like big trout. However, the populations in the Great Lakes, with their elongated frames, bright silver skins and drag-screaming fighting ability, can only be compared with the steelhead from the Pacific Ocean. The Great Lakes fish are so like their Pacific cousins that even many steelhead experts acknowledge their title.

"In my over 20 years at DEC, I have interacted with many anglers and guides that have fished both the West Coast and the Great Lakes," said James Markham, New York Department of Environmental Quality senior aquatic biologist. "I have never heard one report of the steelhead caught in lakes Ontario and Erie to be any different than those caught out West. Size may be different, mainly due to forage, but appearance and fight—the defining traits of a steelhead—remain the same."

That makes sense: The West is where they came from, after all.

A Steely History
In 1872, the U.S Fish Commission was actively trying to transplant Pacific salmonid species as a food source for other regions of the United States. However, they weren't exactly clear on what a Pacific salmonid was or how they worked. So, they commissioned legendary fish farmer Seth Green (no, not that one) whose success with stocking Atlantic Salmon in Lake Ontario made him an authority on the subject. Green traveled to California where he purchased trout eggs from the Baird Fish Hatchery on the McCloud River and successfully transported and transplanted them into Lake Michigan. Despite his prestige though, Green didn't know much about Pacific salmonid species either. He stocked the eggs of both Salmo irideus (rainbow trout's Latin name then, now it's now Oncorhynchus mykiss) and a lesser-known sub-species Salmo gairdneri (steelhead, formerly); trout that have a genetic predisposition to anadromy, or migrating to the ocean.

Both species quickly began to thrive in their new home, with the steelhead becoming particularly popular with anglers. So much so that two strains of steelhead eggs from Washington were also stocked into Lake Ontario and Lake Erie. According to the New York State Department of Conservation, these were the Chambers Creek Strain and the Skamania Strain Steelhead. So, the fish in the Great Lakes share their ancestry directly with the fish in the Pacific Northwest. This explains why the fish on both sides of the country behave so similarly when we're fishing for them.

Same Steelhead Gear, Different Steelhead Place
It's funny how a steelhead's credibility is judged on how difficult they are to hook. While resident rainbows can be caught relatively easily on a variety of tackle, "steelhead" on both coasts are incredibly challenging quarry. Neither fish eats much of anything once they enter the river since they're primarily focused on spawning. This inclination makes them extremely difficult to tempt into taking any bait, lure, or fly offered by an angler.

Consequently, the equipment used to catch steelhead in the rivers of the Great Lakes and the Pacific Ocean is very similar. Techniques like centerpinning and drifting egg sacs under indicators or bobbers are the most popular methods in both fisheries, and even Spey casting and swinging flies for the Great Lakes fish has gained in popularity. Spinners, spoons, jigs, and drift gear also share tackle box space in both regions.

So, if the Great Lakes fish are even pursued with the same methods, why is there even a discrepancy in their naming? Well, if you ask that of any West Coast angler worth their pink shrimp brine, they'll say it comes down to one thing: The Pacific Ocean.

Just A Pinch of Salt
The best argument I ever hear from Western anglers about what makes a steelhead a steelhead is that they have to spend a year or three on the high sea. Clear and simple. There aren't sea lions, killer whales, and salmon sharks in Lake Huron. This is their trump card and despite all other arguments, it's the one that really rings true. Regardless of the vastness of the Great Lakes (Lake Superior is the largest at over 350 miles long, 31,700 square miles, and 1,300 feet deep!) they are nothing compared to the Pacific Ocean, the largest body of water on earth. Oceanic steelhead are thought to travel more than 10,000 miles in their lifetimes.

There's something different about the steelhead that run to the ocean. Something about them surviving in such a hostile environment and returning to the rivers in which they were born that sets them apart. When the West Coast steelhead return to their rivers, the power, richness, and majesty of the Pacific Ocean has been distilled within them. They have endured a metamorphosis that enabled them to live and grow in the sea. It gives them an aura, a magic built upon thousands of years of evolution. It is a magic that the fish in the Great Lakes simply do not and cannot have. In fact, according to a study done by Purdue University in 2018, the fish in the Great Lakes actually had to genetically evolve in order to survive entirely in freshwater. While this is amazing, one could argue that this evolution made the Great Lakes fish a different fish, a sub-species of true steelhead.

Common Ground
Having fished on the West Coast for several years now, I'm still comfortable calling the trout from the Great Lakes "steelhead." They are a truly awesome fish and worthy of the name. Yet their lack of mystique bestowed from the ocean makes them feel somehow false. Deep down, I feel that maybe the West Coasters are right.

In the end there is always going to be a debate, but there is no need for one. No matter where anglers pursue them, or what they consider them to be, steelhead stand as the ultimate sport fish. They're an obsession, creating a culture of steelhead bums and raising the divorce rate across the entire country. So, maybe that's the thing that can unite the two factions. The great commonality among all steelhead anglers that defines the fish itself is that they haunt us. We must pursue them from wherever we live. These are the silver ghosts that appear and vanish both on our lines and in our dreams.

Feature image via Tosh Brown.

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