How does catch and release affect steelhead?

I was wandering around various angling conservation websites and came across “How does catch and release affect steelhead?” on the Wild Steelhead Coalition website.  It was a summary of a study done on the Bulkley River in British Columbia.  The primary takeaways for me are that I will continue to avoid steelheading on the Deschutes for now and I need to start using a net.  Like many fly anglers, I land a steelhead by bringing it close enough to grab by the tail before removing the hook.  The study showed that “tailed” fish had higher levels of stress than netted fish.

Here’s a summary of other results:

  • Steelhead recover more quickly when not exposed to air. After 2 weeks, however, there was no difference between fish exposed to air up to 30 seconds and those that were not.  The “Keep ‘Em Wet” campaign certainly has merit, but you can safely take a fish out of the water for a few seconds to take a photo.
  • The stress of the fight does not seem to negatively impact steelhead survival. These are tough fish that swim long distances up rivers, through rapids and waterfalls, and can quickly recover.
  • Even when best practices are used a small percentage of steelhead do perish after release; 6% died within 2 weeks in this study.  Other studies have put the figure at 10%.

My personal takeaway is that I need to start using a net and, of course, continue to keep wild steelhead in the water.  I also believe that 6% mortality for released fish is too high when a run is threatened with extinction.

Two days ago I had lunch with the head of the fish division at ODFW and relayed the data about wild steelhead returns on the Deschutes.  He was clearly concerned but was not supportive of a temporary angling moratorium.  He stated that anglers might catch 20% of the wild fish and even if 10% of them die, it’s a small percentage.  (BTW, he raved about fly fishing for rock fish and tuna off the coast.)

I understand the logic, but as of September 13th a total of 15 wild steelhead have been counted at Sherar’s Falls.  Not all steelhead are counted but this is a very low number.  I believe that if anglers inadvertently kill even a single fish that’s simply too many when the counts are so low.  Hopefully more wild fish will return soon, but this is a run that historically was in the tens of thousands if not more.