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Steelhead: Their history and biology in Michigan/Biological Bits

April 27, 2012
By Tom Rozich , The Daily Mining Gazette

Spring in the Copper Country means the steelhead are running and avid steelhead anglers have dreams of leaping, chrome fish dancing through their heads. They also have vivid memories of numb hands, feet and ice-filled rod guides.

Some allege steelheaders have the ability to control the flow of blood to their extremities, as do waterfowl. At least that is what they tell you, while enduring standing for endless hours in their favorite icy stream! Fair weather anglers say steelheaders are "wackos in waders," but we know we are the Tenth Legion of fishermen

What is a steelhead? A steelhead is a rainbow trout, scientifically known as Oncorhynchus mykiss, that spends most of its life in the Pacific Ocean, or in Michigan's case, the Great Lakes. They are an "anadromous" rainbow trout, meaning they migrate from salt to fresh water to spawn. Technically in the Great Lakes, they are "potamodromous," meaning migrations within fresh waters. Steelhead or rainbow trout are native to the west coast of North America, from Baja, California north into Alaska. There are also populations in the high mountains of Arizona, New Mexico and Mexico that do not migrate out to the Pacific Ocean and are landlocked. They are a very adaptable species of fish and are now found worldwide.

Rainbow trout were first introduced in Michigan in 1876 into the AuSable River by Daniel Fitzhugh, Jr. of Bay City. The eggs came from Cambell's Creek in northern California, which is a tributary of the McCloud River, which empties into the Sacramento River. Rainbow trout were first introduced into the Lake Michigan watershed in 1880 by the Michigan State Fish Commission.

This fry plant originated from 2,000 eggs shipped to Michigan obtained from Crook's Creek, the other major tributary of the McCloud River. Between 1880 and 1890, several egg transfers from the McCloud River system were made to Michigan. The "California trout" as they were called at the time, were stocked into Lower Peninsula streams, including the Pere Marquette and Pine Rivers.

From 1890 to 1893, eggs from the Klamath River in northern California were shipped to Michigan hatcheries. Between 1893 and 1898, Michigan received eggs from Redwood Creek, California and after 1898, eggs from the Willamette and Rogue Rivers in Oregon were transferred to Michigan. Rainbow trout were first introduced into Copper Country waters in 1895 when 12,000 fry (2-3 inches) were stocked in the Pilgrim River and another 8,000 fry were put in Town Line Creek, just west of Ontonagon.

How did these rainbow trout get all the way to Houghton and Ontonagon County from the Paris Fish Hatchery, located in Mecosta County, just north of Big Rapids, in 1895, which today is an eight-hour car ride away, you wonder?

In 1887 the Michigan Fish Commission (predecessor to modern day DNR) received $6,000 from the legislature to build a specialized fish rail car, which was named "Attikumaig," a Chippewa name for whitefish. The car could carry up to 175 10-gallon milk cans in special lockers, with ice to keep the fish cold. The Attikumaig also had living quarters for the crew. The fish, once they arrived at their designated county, were transferred to "county agents," who then stocked them where they wished. The Houghton County agent was C.D. Sheldon, who then stocked the 12,000 rainbow trout in the Pilgrim River in Adams and Portage Townships.

By 1909, major runs were occurring in the St. Mary's, Pere Marquette, Pentwater, Boardman, Pine (before construction of Tippy and Stronach dams), Muskegon and other area rivers. These fish ranged in size from 3 to 20 pounds and average about eight pounds. Not all anglers liked rainbow trout, which were looked on as being inferior to brook trout.

Jim Seeley, a famous character of the Little Manistee River, known for his tin shanty near Peacock in Lake County, stated, "The sorriest day of his life came when the rainbows were planted in the Little Manistee." He dearly loved brook trout! Thus, in 1917, 1918 and 1919, 343, 358 and 555 steelhead spearing permits were sold, respectively. I'm sure Jim was one of the first in line to buy a spearing license. That practice was discontinued in 1920.

Excellent runs of steelhead were occurring in the Pine River, prior to the construction of Stronach Dam in 1913. From 1914 through 1918, when Junction Dam (now named Tippy Dam) was constructed, steelhead eggs were collected at a station below Stronach Dam. In 2003, the removal of Stronach Dam was completed and the Pine River returned to a free-flowing condition once again. In 1918, steelhead eggs were collected below Tippy Dam, on the Manistee River.

Additional egg take stations were constructed: 1924 Pine Creek in Manistee County; and Foxes Bridge on the Little Manistee River in Lake County. Steelhead eggs were taken from these stations from 1914 to 1931, when collections of rainbow trout eggs from "wild fish" were discontinued. Michigan's modern steelhead era began in 1966, when the Little Manistee Weir was constructed and began operation. This operation continues today and is the sole source of steelhead eggs for Michigan's stocking program. I worked at and managed this facility, where I became "father" to millions of steelhead! An average of 5 million steelhead eggs are taken annually for Michigan and other states. Steelhead eggs from this facility have been shipped to 10 states (Missouri, Montana, Minnesota, New York, Vermont, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia, North Carolina and Indiana) and two countries (Canada and France). The public is welcome to observe the steelhead egg take, which occurs in early April.

Michigan steelhead developed primarily from the McCloud River, California strain. However, millions of rainbow trout of numerous strains planted by Michigan and other Great Lakes states over the years has contributed genetically to the development of the "wild" naturalized steelhead populations we have today. No rainbow trout/steelhead has been stocked in the Pilgrim River since 1958, yet it gets a good, fishable run annually. Avid steelheaders from around the country travel to Michigan to fish for these great fighters, as we probably have the best steelhead fishing in the country. Go Fish!



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