How coastal steelhead managers are working to conserve Washington’s State Fish

Braving the winter weather to fish for steelhead is a tradition for many in Washington. The steelhead, a sea-going rainbow trout that can exceed 30 pounds, is the official State Fish and a highly regarded game fish.

While steelhead are known as a “fish of a thousand casts,” fishing for them does not require a boat or expensive gear, making it a relatively accessible fishery.

Though often overshadowed by their cousin, the Pacific salmon, steelhead are an important indicator of ecosystem health, and are important culturally to both recreational anglers and Indigenous people.

Winter-run steelhead found on the Sol Duc River on the Olympic Peninsula near Forks, Washington.

“Winter steelhead return to coastal rivers as early as November and December, providing a chance for anglers to celebrate the outdoors during the cold, wet season by going out and engaging in steelhead fishing,” said James Losee, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife’s (WDFW) Coastal Region fish program manager.

Washington and other western states have both winter-run and summer-run steelhead populations, depending on the river and habitat conditions. This post focuses on winter-run steelhead, which return to freshwater between November and April and spawn in late-winter and spring.

Steelhead in the Coastal Region are known for their size and fight, and their range overlaps with temperate rainforest, creating a special recreational experience.

“Winter steelhead come in over a five- or six-month time period, so there’s never huge numbers of them,” said Bob Kratzer, owner of Angler’s Guide Service in Forks. “You spend a lot of time really having to work for them. Their fights are spectacular, so the reward is great when you do hook one. And then the environment that they live in, particularly in the wintertime, is not for everybody.”

The winter steelhead fisheries on the Olympic Peninsula are world-renowned in the fishing community. It’s not uncommon to drive to the banks of the Hoh, Sol Duc, or other iconic coastal steelhead rivers and see license plates from numerous states or meet visitors from around the world.

“Of all the salmonid species, wild steelhead are such a mystery to me: where they’ve been, what they’ve gone through, and one day they decide to pull on my line and our paths cross,” said Rich Simms, a co-founder and board member of the Wild Steelhead Coalition, a grassroots nonprofit based in Western Washington. “The more you learn about them, the more you become engaged and want to see them flourish. Especially on the Olympic Peninsula, steelhead fishing can put you in some of the most beautiful environments we have in the state.”

Wild steelhead caught and released on an Olympic Peninsula river. Photo by Haley Richards.

This fishing activity supports local businesses during the winter, from fishing guides to restaurants and motels. Yet with all this attention, and growing steelhead conservation concerns, comes a responsibility to conserve this Washington state symbol when setting sustainable fishing seasons.

“We realize how important these fish are for the future of all Washingtonians,” said Jennifer Whitney, a WDFW Coastal Region fish biologist. “They’re important fish for our tribal co-managers. They’re important fish for our anglers, and they are important for the ecosystem; people come from far and wide to fish for steelhead and to just observe them in their natural environment. They’re important to the local economies.”

Each year, WDFW holds town hall meetings to solicit fishery proposals from the public and present information on steelhead management, trends, environmental indicators, and forecasts. Public input helps guide the agency’s approach to each season. The Department also meets with tribal co-managers, fishing guides, and conservation organizations.

“Good management should be adaptive,” Whitney said. “We represent our constituents, who have diverse goals. Representing those who are calling for stronger conservation measures and those who are calling for more opportunity is the line we walk.”

Casting gear for winter steelhead on an Olympic Peninsula tributary. Photo by Chase Gunnell.

Steelhead and rainbow trout are the same species, but while rainbow trout remain in freshwater, steelhead are “anadromous” and travel to the ocean before returning to spawn in freshwater. Unlike salmon, steelhead can survive spawning and return to spawn more than once. Steelhead spend a significant portion of their juvenile and adult life stages in freshwater, making them particularly susceptible to habitat degradation and other pressures.

Following regulations changes enacted in 2015, Washington anglers may only keep hatchery steelhead; wild steelhead caught in the state must be kept partially in the water and released. Unlike most other parts of the state, steelhead along the coast are not listed under the Endangered Species Act, though there have been petitions to do so.

“Steelhead are in significant decline across their range,” Losee said. “In many areas, managers are looking to rebuild steelhead populations to support long-term success for both the fish and the fisheries.”

Check out WDFW’s coastal steelhead management page for more information.

WDFW steelhead monitoring teams record data from a coastal steelhead before release.

Frequently asked questions

More information on the Statewide Steelhead Management Plan, key terms, and suggested research papers are available on WDFW’s Coastal Steelhead Management webpage.

Q: What is creel monitoring?

A: A creel is a wicker basket traditionally used by anglers to carry fish. Today, the term creel monitoring refers to fishery managers interviewing anglers to estimate the catch of a sport fishery. Creel monitoring includes estimates of both harvested and released fish.

Q: Is creel monitoring accurate?

A: Creel monitoring is an accurate method of estimating catch. As with any survey, a greater number of interviews yields a more precise estimate. For example, interviewing 500 out of 1,000 anglers will provide a more accurate count than just interviewing one person. The ability to conduct more interviews depends on available resources such as funding and staffing, and we are working to improve the accuracy of our surveys.

Fishery managers typically interview a significant subsample of anglers and then expand their results based on the total number of anglers on the water. In addition to interviewing anglers, fishery managers also count vehicles and anglers during a survey to produce catch estimates.

Q: What is broodstock, and how does WDFW use integrated and segregated broodstock steelhead hatcheries?

A: Fish hatcheries support recreational, commercial, and tribal fisheries. And in some areas where fish populations are seriously threatened, specialized hatchery programs can help advance conservation goals. Broodstock are used in all hatchery programs to spawn the next generation of fish.

When steelhead anglers talk about “broodstock,” they are often referring to integrated hatchery programs — programs that acquire and spawn wild fish as part of the broodstock to regularly integrate genes and characteristics from fish native to that river system. This is distinct from segregated hatchery programs, in which only hatchery fish are collected and used to produce smolts year after year. WDFW uses each type of hatchery program depending on the needs of the fishery and watershed. See our steelhead smolt stocking webpage for more information on hatchery stocking.

Q: Why does WDFW revisit coastal steelhead fishing seasons each year?

A: Our mission includes both conserving species and providing fishing opportunities, and we must balance these objectives. As the predicted number of returning steelhead varies by year, our focus in season-setting may lean toward increased conservation efforts or expanded opportunities. In some cases, we may decide to “stay the course” and continue with a management plan that we believe is appropriate for the current season. Each winter-spring season is also designed for consistency with the Statewide Steelhead Management Plan.

Q: How does WDFW work with tribal fishery managers?

A: The 1974 federal court case U.S. v. Washington, known as the Boldt Decision, reaffirmed tribes’ treaty rights to harvest steelhead, salmon, and other fish and established them as co-managers of Washington fisheries. Our government-to-government relationship allows us to work with tribal nations to sustainably manage fish populations while providing opportunities for recreational, commercial, and ceremonial and subsistence harvest.

We work with our co-managers to produce forecasts, or the predicted number of adult steelhead returning in future years, and set goals for escapement, or the number of steelhead surviving to the spawning grounds or hatchery. Harvestable shares are also divided equally. Learn more about our salmon and steelhead co-management on this webpage.

Q: What are the impacts of the “no fishing from a floating device” rule?

A: Since 2020, WDFW has prohibited fishing from a floating device on certain rivers during coastal steelhead season, with the goal of protecting wild steelhead populations. The Department is currently designing a one-year study to determine the impacts of this practice on wild steelhead to better inform future rulemaking. Similar regulations have been used on Oregon and British Columbia rivers to manage popular steelhead fisheries.

The Hoh River was selected for this study because of public interest in expanding boating opportunities, but intensive monitoring and some restrictions will help ensure conservation goals are still met.

Q: How does WDFW use sonar in its steelhead management?

A: In certain rivers around the state such as the Hoh, Quillayute, and Skagit, the Department uses sonar monitoring tools to estimate steelhead and salmon abundance and escapement and compare numbers to past seasons. We have heard support and encouragement for using these tools for years from anglers, conservation groups, advisors, and WDFW staff, and are eager to expand their application in the Coastal Region.

Through machine learning and automated programming, we intend to use sonar in the future to provide in-season estimates and predictions, allowing for adjustments to fisheries based on real-time results. This technology is needed to distinguish between the diverse species of fish entering the river during steelhead season. We expect to provide further updates on this tool in the future.

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The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife

The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife is dedicated to preserving, protecting and perpetuating the state’s fish and wildlife resources.