California’s Fish-of-Steel

Look! Up in the stream! It’s a bird-it’s a plain (trout)—no, it’s Super Fish!

Oh, you don’t recall Super Fish from your comic book days? Well, why not? After all, there is Super Dog, Super Horse, Super Cat and Super Monkey, so why shouldn’t the Man-of-Steel have a Fish-of-Steel?

But, you’re right, he didn’t seem to, or if he did, it certainly was not one of the most popular of the super animals that was thought of over the past decades of story telling.

However, there is a real Fish-of-Steel, one whose story is fantastic enough to rival those of the imaged adventures of Superman or any comic book hero.

A century ago, the watersheds of most of California teamed every spring with steelheads. Like salmon, steelheads begin their lives in freshwater and migrate when young to the sea. Then, after a few years of wandering about the Pacific Ocean, voraciously eating other fishes, squids and plankton animals, they return back to the rivers, creeks and streams of their birth to spawn.

Unlike salmon, however, these superfishes do not necessarily die after completing the cycle. Many, particularly females, return once again to the sea, and then come back to spawn again the next year (although rarely are they able to make the arduous trip more than twice).

Steelheads have long been a favorite of fishermen of all sorts, and many old-time photos are still around showing fantastic catches of dozens of big fishes. And there is good reason that they have been so popular for so long. When mature, a fish can reach 40 pounds (with 50-pounders having been reported), plus they are known to put up a fight worthy of a fish with a name of steel.

Yet steelheads received their common names, not because they were stubbornly hardheaded catches (although some fisherman may like to argue this fact at times), but because of their slate gray color, particularly when at sea. Of course many other fishes that swim around California’s offshore waters are also gray in color, but it is more significant in the case of steelheads because of how they have been classified. In many ways, these fishes seem to be essentially just seagoing versions of the one of most popular sportfish in California, the rainbow trout (Salmo gairdneri). And when steelheads return to the freshwater environment where they began, they abandon their drab “Clark Kent” slaty look and become bright Superman colored—red, blue and yellow rainbowed, just like the trout. So according to some references, steelheads are the sea run variety, S. g. gairdneri. Cross-hybridizations between steelheads and rainbows that have been documented would seem to add substance to this theory.

Other people, though, think differently. They say that steelheads are more closely related to salmon, and hence should be classified as Oncorhynchus mykiss. (Trout and salmon are very closely related in any event.)

Regardless of how they were or are classified, however, there used to be a seemingly endless supply of these seagoing fishes, both in their freshwater habitats and in the ocean. Yet, in a tale that is so repeated all too often, this is far from the case today. Populations of Steelheads have declined over the past 100 years by 90-99 percent. And since they are selective as to the watershed that they return to, it is also figured that dozens of the stocks and genetic races have already disappeared, with many more at risk. For example, in one of these populations at risk, it is estimated that there were 55,000 Steelheads in an annual run before World War II, and now it is down to less than 500.

The saga is similar to that of other popular food fishes. The basic cause of steelheads’ decline is habitat destruction. They need clean, swift-flowing water, with all sorts of pools and riffles and logs, but nowadays, with urbanization, pollution and artificial damming that has occurred in recent times, this environment is hard to find.

Although the decline had been evident for years, finally the alarm was sounded loud enough that beginning in June 1998 California steelheads began to receive special legal protection. But not all populations have received this at the same time or to the same degree. Some have the status as Endangered Species, while others are Threatened, and for some, special status is still in the works. Steelheads have long been off-limits for commercial fishing, and hatcheries have been established to also try to help out in restoring the numbers of these valuable fishes.

The hopes are, of course, that through such heroic efforts, California’s Fish-of-Steel will become mighty again. Superman and the assortment of comic book super animals had to face all sorts of enemies and dangers as well, but they were merely fictitious legends. Certainly no one wants the real Super Fish to be relegated to the status of just old stories and photos from the past. Steelhead populations may never be restored to their former glory, but more and more people are now able to exclaim “Look up in the stream! It’s not just a plain trout, but a Steelhead—and that’s super to see!”

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