What “once was” may still come for steelheaders

In Oregon by steelheaders

As steelheaders, we’re all familiar with conventional wisdom about steelhead fishing.


The fishing isn’t what it used to be.


You should have been here 50 years ago.


Stories of huge fish and numerous multiple fish days, of fishing places that no one else had fished for weeks, or months. Tales of what once was, all centering around the sinking feeling that we were born a generation too late. That we missed it.


I have spent fishless days drifting off in thought to contemplate what the “good times” may have been like. I’ve closed my eyes and hoped to reopen them and be transported back in time 100 years – with graphite, of course. It never works. So I can only wonder what it must have been like to fish over that many steelhead in my home rivers. What might I have felt upon seeing so much opportunity?


Maybe the mental caning is proper preparation for the extra level of toughness needed to pursue the fish of a thousand casts. Regardless, the central theme to the conventional wisdom is that there are far fewer steelhead now than there were historically. Consequently, each generation has fished over smaller runs. Each has had less opportunity.


On the surface that is certainly true. But, the losses are not just about fewer steelhead. There are also fewer places to fish. Many rivers are closed to steelhead angling.


But despite these losses there is reason to look to the future with hope–that this will be the generation that makes those popular beliefs just another artifact of the past.


One of the main reasons there are fewer places to fish for steelhead today than in yesteryear is dams. The extent of damage from these structures depends on the state, but there are many rivers that would have steelhead – or at least more steelhead – if not for dams.

sandy wes

Perhaps there is no greater barrier, literally, to steelheading opportunity than the construction of massive dams that block the upstream migration of a highly migratory organism. Many dams are currently derelict, unsafe, and unsustainable economically. Consequently, there has been a surge in the removal, and discussion of removal, of dams both small and large.



Dam removal and its impacts are very personal to me. Previous to my job at Trout Unlimited, I spent five years working as a scientist on the Elwha Dam removal project. During that time I heard many stories about how good the fishing used to be below the dams. In contrast, I heard few stories about fishing for steelhead above the dams. All of those anglers were long gone, and most of their stories too. The loss of those memories likely contributed to the local pushback against dam removal, largely from those that did not want to lose the trout fishery in the dam reservoirs. They had truly forgotten about steelhead and salmon.


What I have come to realize is that, on rivers like the Elwha (WA) where dams have recently been taken out, I and many other anglers will experience something the previous two generations of anglers did not: the opportunity to fish for steelhead above former dam sites. Over the course of the past several years my friends and I have wagered which run in the Elwha will produce the first sport-caught steelhead. The angler that catches that steelhead would be the first to do so in more than a century.


Think about that.  


It is this type of large-scale restoration effort that provides the counterpoint to the conventional wisdom that we were born a generation too late. In fact, I would argue that we can confidently claim that steelhead fishing will be better in 20 years in the Elwha than it has been for more than 100 years.


The Elwha is not the only river about which this can be said. Dams have been removed in a number of rivers, and anglers have already caught steelhead above those dam sites in places like the White Salmon River. Best of all, the proposed removal of four old, unproductive hydropower dams on the lower Klamath River is Red-Flat-Systems-22becoming a reality for the third most productive river for salmon and steelhead, historically, on the West Coast. And while a good case can be made for removing dams on many rivers, we should prioritize their removal based on where we get the most restoration bang for the buck and where the social and economic conditions make dam removal feasible.  


So despite the fact that Mother Nature is not creating new steelhead rivers, we can reclaim steelhead rivers that have been robbed of their vitality. But don’t think for a second that removing dams is easy.  Lack of political will and funding can be major obstacles. Even a dam removal as promising as the Elwha required many years of hard work and advocacy to make it a reality.   


The Elwha’s rebirth stands as testament to the power of vision, persistence and patience.  And it reveals clearly the ability of a river to heal itself if given the chance.  So let’s keep working hard to bring steelhead rivers back to life. There are more rivers to reclaim and a brighter future — with more steelhead angling opportunity — to be realized.


John McMillan

Steelhead Science Director

Trout Unlimited