This is always an exciting time of year online. Late spring marks the arrival of some amazing fisheries and big chrome steelhead pictures are soon to follow.
I love seeing people out there getting after it, especially friends. Mixed in Instagram feeds though are a generous smattering of pics with people hoisting up beat up kelt after kelt.
What’s a kelt? A kelt or a downstreamer is steelhead that has already spawned and is in the process of heading back to the ocean. Steelhead have the ability to spawn multiple times and depending on ocean survival conditions and proximity of watersheds to the Pacific can be a major contributor to the steelhead population. Of course, this is a vulnerable time for these fish having potentially spent many months in the river losing weight and added pressure from angling is disastrous.
Why is this a thing?
Now we all experience fisheries in the spring where the chances of intercepting out migrating steelhead are a reality and once in a while they even latch on your line. Completely avoiding steelhead rivers with any chance at a “downstreamer” is almost impossible and I’ve even encountered steelhead spawning in early January. But targeting fish on the spawning beds and in rivers with no fresh migrating steelhead is a different game altogether.
A few years ago I noticed an image circulating on the social media of an angler holding a dead steelhead. The online police had gotten a hold of it and enhanced the pic and you could clearly see another very mature dead steelhead in the background and boulders covered in blood and single eggs. The fish being held didn’t seem in much better shape. These fish had come up the Columbia in the summer and were now being caught with bait in the late spring on tributaries small enough to almost jump across.
These images aren't the only examples and every spring they make an appearance. Some are hatchery fish, some are families getting out for a yearly outing and some just dont know better.
From the moment steelhead enter fresh water we are harassing them (even before!!). In BC, management steps to protect spawning steelhead often include permanently closing prime spawning habitat and stopping fishing shortly before. The Vedder River is a great example where the river closes entirely to protect spawning and outmigrating steelhead in the spring. By this time fresh fish are a rarity and it's a great time for anglers to hang up their rods.
While we can't avoid all spawners or every last kelt surely we can try and mitigate our impact at this stage in their life cycle.