Early History of Great Lakes Steelhead

In Science Friday, Steelhead Files by Kyle Smith

Figure 1. An 11 pound steelhead taken from Lake Michigan, June 1909.

Time for another Science Friday. As followers of these posts know, we like to bring you interesting and useful knowledge about steelhead from a variety of sources. This week,we have a guest author: Brian Morrison. Brian is a scientist and angler who lives in Ontario, Canada, and he was kind enough to drop some knowledge about steelhead in the Great Lakes.

Steelhead are not native to the Great Lakes, but they have become a valuable and unique fishery there. In this post, Brian dives into the history of how steelhead got their start in the Great Lakes, including a timeline of the initial hatchery plants and the early fisheries that were generated from those releases of fish. 

In our next Science Friday, Brian reviews and summarizes the history of a specific Great Lakes watershed, and how steelhead were introduced, colonized and thrived over the last 110 years. As with so many things related to steelhead — with the most life history diversity of any salmonid — you may be surprised by how much you didn’t know about them.


Steelheaders on both the West Coast and in the Great Lakes share the same passion for pursuing and protecting wild steelhead populations and their watersheds. Many anglers — especially those on the West Coast — view the Great Lakes’ steelhead fisheries as being relatively new (e.g. ‘steelhead alley’ in Pennsylvania and Ohio) that was started with some hatchery steelhead. 

However, this is not entirely true. There is a longer history to Great Lakes steelhead than one might think, ranging from releases of hatchery fish to anglers and authors. And not surprisingly, steelhead have faced numerous threats just as they do on the West Coast. Yet many of the parallels have not been broadly discussed.

Let’s begin with the very first O. mykiss.   

Steelhead/rainbow trout were initially introduced into the Great Lakes in 1876 in Michigan’s Au Sable River (tributary to Lake Huron). From this, and subsequent introductions, steelhead quickly colonized throughout the Great Lakes, establishing naturalized (wild) populations. By 1887, adult steelhead were returning to the Muskegon River to spawn (1), and were found in the Pere Marquette River by 1901 (2). 

By 1914 on the Big Manistee River, it was noted, “Last year we made our first attempt to take eggs from wild Rainbows, but our field station at Stronach Dam was established too late to accomplish much in the way of egg taking. At that time there was no effective fishway in the dam above and accumulations of big trout was a remarkable sight, the estimated number being from 25,000 to 40,000 at one time, varying in size from 3 to 4 pounds to 15 to 20, the average being about 8 pounds (e.g. Figure 1)”.  

This dam is in Pine River, which is only one of the numerous branches of Manistee” (3).  Imagine seeing that many steelhead back then in one place!

That is a lot of fish, but we also need to put it in context. The Manistee River watershed is only 4,600 km2 (1,780 mi2 ) in total, which would be about 5.4 returning adults for every square km of watershed on the conservative end of the scale and assuming full access, which was not the case. Most surprising, that level of abundance occurred just over 30 years following initial introductions (approximately six steelhead generations). 

For comparison, the Manistee River basin is similar in size to the Russian River in California, but is substantially smaller than the Skagit River in Washington (some 6,900 km2)

The St. Mary’s River also rose to prominence as a steelhead river, with fish as large as 14lbs being caught in 1909 (4). In fact, in 1920 Ernest Hemingway wrote this about the St. Mary’s: “At present the best rainbow trout fishing in the world is in the rapids of the Canadian Soo (5)”. By 1924, the second and third largest rainbow trout prizes given by Field and Stream magazine were for fish caught from the St. Mary’s River (6).   

Unfortunately, a series of compensating gates dammed the upper part of the river. By 1921, it was noted “Before the Compensation Dam was built, there was really good fishing in the rapids and there were monster rainbow trout in those days – 12 and 16 pounders. There are still some, of course, but they don’t come up out of the water after you the way they used to” (7).  And Ray Bergman, in his seminal book Trout, discusses fishing the St. Mary’s with bucktail flies for steelhead prior to 1938.  

Elsewhere in the Great Lakes region, the Brule River in Wisconsin became known as a world class fishery for rainbow trout. By 1921, it was full of large rainbows (5 to 20 pounds) which came up the river from Lake Superior in the spring to spawn (8).  

Sadly, in many of these cases, this abundance did not last.  

Figure 2. Recovery of watersheds through reforestation.  Today, the Ganaraska River is one of the premier wild steelhead watersheds in Ontario.

Like on the West Coast, the St. Mary’s River and many of Michigan’s prominent rivers (Muskegon, Manistee and Au Sable Rivers) experienced serious declines in steelhead populations due to the construction of dams (in the early 1900s, in the case of the Michigan Rivers (9), and anecdotal evidence points to declines on the Brule following the installation of a low head barrier to control Sea Lamprey (8)). Rampant deforestation, pollution, production hatcheries and exploitation also affected naturalized steelhead populations across the Great Lakes.  

By the 1940s, large areas that were deforested were re-forested, allowing watershed habitats to stabilize, and calls for dam removal were being brought forward to help improve access and abundance (Figure 2).  

To put this early history of Great Lakes steelhead fisheries into context, these fisheries were utilized in the same era as the earliest records of steelhead fishing on the West Coast, such as those described by Zane Grey in 1918 while fishing Deer Creek (tributary to the North Fork Stillaguamish River in Washington state), the Rogue River around 1922, and later the North Umpqua, along with authors like Haig-Brown, Bergman, and Van Fleet. 

It seems as though anglers across the United States started to love fishing for steelhead at around the same time.   



1. Detroit Free Press. Sunday April 29, 1928

2. Hough, E. 1901. Rainbow Trout at Home: transplanting of this far western fish a success. Chicago Daily Tribute August 4, 1901.

3. Field and Stream, July 25, 1914. Wonderful Supply of Rainbow Trout in Michigan

4. Chicago Daily Tribute September 19, 1909. King of Rainbow Trout Landed at “Soo” Rapids.

5. Hemingway, E. 1920.  The Best Rainbow Trout Fishing in the World is at the Canadian Soo. Toronto Star Weekly/August 28, 1920

6. The Globe, December 27, 1924. Ontario’s Fine Rainbow Trout Win Against Whole Continent. 

7. Lacelle, M. c1950. The Lure of the Rainbow Trout.  Unpublished manuscript.

8. Niemuth, W. 1970. A Study of Migratory lake run trout in the Brule River, Wisconsin Part II Rainbow Trout. Bureau of Fish Management Management Report No. 38.

9. Borgeson, D.P. 1974. Anadromous Trout Management in the Great Lakes in Proceedings of the Wild Trout Management Symposium. September 25-26, 1974.