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Wild Life

The Mysterious Gray Ghost: The Life of the Winter Steelhead

The Mysterious Gray Ghost: The Life of the Winter Steelhead

By Lucas Holmgren, Contributing Writer

Every year, the “Grey Ghost” enters the coastal regions of our beloved Pacific Northwest region. Born in the rivers and creeks that we pass by daily, they have a unique journey of 1-2 years in freshwater before migrating to the Pacific Ocean to begin a feeding journey that can last anywhere from 6 months to 6 years. These are winter steelhead.

Ocean-Run Rainbow Trout
For anglers in the know, these are considered one of the premier sportfish in the world. Steelhead are the same species as rainbow trout, but they have the predisposition to migrate out of their rivers into giant open water to feed, before returning at spawn time. Steelhead and rainbows can spawn together, and produce either resident rainbow, or ocean-run steelhead in the same hatch!

This is why you will see trucks parked at boat launches in the dead of winter. With frigid temperatures, rain and snow, winter steelhead return after swimming all the way to places like the coast of Japan, Russia and Alaska. Because they are solitary during their feeding phase, they are one of the most mysterious “anadromous” (freshwater born fish with an ocean phase) fish that exist. Chinook and Coho salmon often travel in schools, following the Pacific Coastline and feeding, being intercepted by commercial fishing fleets. They are easier to predict and keep track of. Steelhead tend to swim straight across the ocean, heading into dangerous water with many predators. As a result, only about 1 in 100 steelhead that enter the ocean will return alive to spawn.

Steelhead are Native to Oregon
I’m sure you’ve seen PDX-area rivers like the Sandy and Clackamas. Although the last several years have been incredibly tough for steelhead numbers, they are still sneaking in through tidewater into these rivers, utilizing the wintertime flows to travel and hold. They are not in feeding mode at this time, although they often strike lures and bait aggressively out of instinct. They use the magnetic polar queues to navigate back to the mouth of their river and then start to use their incredible sense of smell to find the exact area where they were born.

The Oregon Coast has a healthier population of these sneaky ghosts. They are not easy to spot like salmon, nor do they tend to jump or roll at the surface much. Because of this, you may walk a quiet section of a river and never know that there are a few large steelhead hiding in a riffle next to you. The only time they expose themselves is when they’re spawning. This is best observed in March, April and May, when the majority of winter steelhead spawn.

The Future
These fish are a hallmark of Oregon wildlife, but they need our help! We are at the lowest levels ever counted for these magnificent fish. The more we can do to protect creek and river habitat, protect cold, clean water, and supplement them in smart, scientific ways, the better chance we have at future generations enjoying these mysterious ghosts!

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