No matter how well he cast, how strongly he waded, how thoroughly he knew a river, a steelhead fly-fisherman used to work hard to catch fish. An ordinary day might include six or eight hours of fighting heavy currents, changing flies (Skunk? Golden Demon? Thor?), retying leaders and false-casting enough line to reach halfway across the continent. Perhaps through all of this, with luck, just once, the fly would stop midway or so in its cross-stream drift, and before there was time to react, or even think, came the hard pull, the arm-wrenching strike, and for the next 10 minutes anything could happen. The steelhead would surely jump spectacularly, once at the strike and often half a dozen more times after that. There would be at least one powerful downstream run that left an angler feeling utterly helpless as he tried to follow on tired legs, stumbling over slippery boulders and treading water around log jams as the line went out and out, melting from the reel. The odds on landing a hooked steelhead were no better than even. That's the way it used to be. In my experience, though, in recent years it has become a good bit easier to bring the average fish to bank, and as strange as it may at first seem, this state of affairs has caused numbers of anglers to complain.
If some extraordinary breakthrough in equipment were responsible—like, say, a cobweb-thin yet wire-strong leader tippet—reactions might be different. But to my mind the truth is simply this: steelhead aren't what they used to be. This conclusion—disputed by many scientists and fishermen—is not comparable to those that we so often hear oldtimers spout in dark bars in reference to infielders or heavyweight champions of their day. It may be true that they don't make them like Ty Cobb or Jack Dempsey anymore. What's true about steelhead is that they never used to make them at all. Now let me explain.
Increased angling pressure and habitat destruction have decimated native steelhead populations. More leisure time, more and better roads, improved campgrounds, the increasing use of the spinning reel have combined to produce the pressure. Habitat destruction isn't quite so obvious, but probably has to carry most of the blame. Dams, industrial pollution and logging have led to erosion and siltation of spawning beds, blockage of small streams and, because of the removal of shade trees, higher water temperature, which the trout can barely tolerate but in which the so-called trash fish thrive.
These were the reasons—the very good reasons, theoretically—for the making of steelhead. The fish hatcheries that make them have become as common as museums and theaters in the West. When the Corps of Engineers builds a dam (as it is now doing on the Rogue River in Oregon), a hatchery is constructed to compensate for the loss of natural spawning beds. In fact, most steelhead rivers without dams are also resorting to hatcheries, some with spectacular numerical success. For example, Oregon's North Umpqua summer run went from an average of 2,000 to 3,000 fish in the mid '60s to more than 15,000 in the early '70s.
Such successes were at first met with cheers, but now, for many anglers, things seem to be changing. This brings us back to our hardworking fly-fisherman and his six- or eight-hour day. When he finally does connect, it is a bit depressing to find a steelhead at the end of the line that will neither jump nor run nor do much of anything else—a fish that is little more than five or 10 pounds of dead weight to be cranked in. A dozen such fish leave little to pleasantly remember on stormy winter nights when the rivers are running muddy and high.
These hatchery fish that don't fight are usually called "dogs," at least here in Oregon, and often there are some unprintable adjectives thrown in. It's an insult to dogs. "Slugs" would be better. And in case you wonder, hatchery fish are recognizable. Many claim that the fastest way to identify a hatchery fish is to hook one and drag it in, but as far as documentable evidence is concerned, some have clipped fins or are tagged. Even if there are no man-made markings, the dorsal fins are often deformed from the months the fish have spent packed, like sardines, in hatchery holding tanks.
It is the opinion of a number of anglers that these tanks are the key to the problem. A steelhead hatched in the gravel of its stream faces a vigorous fight for life. Less than an inch long when it first swims free, the fry must survive the predation of other fish, birds, mammals, even large insects. The mortality rate through the first months of a new generation is staggering. It is truly a case of survival of the fittest.
In the hatchery, however, the eggs are generally collected from the largest broodfish returning upriver to spawn. The hatchery fry are fed special pellets, disease is controlled with chemicals and the smallest fry are graded out. When they are about seven inches long they are ready to migrate to the sea, having bypassed the rigorous early fight for survival of their wild-bred siblings. Again, this makes perfect sense—theoretically. The river is merely a passageway to salt water, where the smolts will feed and grow to return as the five-, 10- and, sometimes, 20-pounders that we fish for. On their return, the largest females will again be taken by the hatcheries for their eggs.
While this continuous artificial manipulation of the steelhead population is producing many more fish, it also could be subtly developing a strain of non-fighters. In other words, it could be sacrificing quality for quantity.
If there is a workable solution to the problem, a sane compromise between man's way and nature's, it might well be a device called the Vibert Box, named after its French inventor. This is a device about the size of a cigarette pack, made of plastic and punched full of holes. It is designed to be filled with fertilized fish eggs and buried in the gravel bottom of a stream, just as naturally fertilized eggs are buried. The holes are too small for the eggs to slip through and just large enough to let the hatched fry escape. Since survival of the fit again becomes a controlling factor, this method simulates nature to a degree that hatcheries can never achieve. It is simple, therefore relatively inexpensive, and it seems to work. There are documented cases of its success, so far with nonmigratory trout.