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3 Rules for Handling Steelhead

by The Addicts

May 19, 2014

I remember fishing the summer of 2013 for Fall Chinook on the lower Columbia. As we held anchor in deeper water we watched the summer steelhead fishermen on the sandy banks, plunking for Steelhead. They we're doing pretty well as a matter of fact. It was difficult however, to see someone kicking a wild fish back into the water. They hauled it up onto the sand, let it flop around and then kicked it back into the water.

This reminded me that education has still got a long ways to go.

We're talking Wild Steelhead. big native winter washington steelhead

What is it about wild steelhead that makes them so appealing to anglers like me? Is it their resilient nature, their brawny strength, their graceful colors, epic runs, amazing acrobatics and stealthy migration? Maybe all of the above, with the steelhead there seems to be a special connection between fish and angler.

With a species that provides so much enjoyment and anticipation for anglers, comes responsibility. These big, ocean-going rainbow trout represent a beauty and balance that shows the spirit of the great Pacific Northwest. We've been blessed with water and habitat that is conducive to Steelhead and get to enjoy the chase of them near our back-porches, yet, they are listed as an endangered species.

Please take care. These fish are hardy, but they are not invincible.

Rules of handling fish:

  1. KEEP YOUR HAND OUT OF THE GILLS - This is essential! I see this in pictures, by the river...please don't! Do not put your fingers inside of the gills or the gill plate. This is a very sensitive area and even though it's an "easy" area to grab, it can easily kill a wild fish after release very quickly. This would be like someone picking you up by the lung - not fun. Only do this to fish you mean to kill. A fish for release should never have anything inside of it's gills. Also take care that mud, sand or any other material does not wash into the gills.
  2. Hold that tail! Hold your fish horizontally, distributing their weight evenly between your hands (both hands!) You can apply a lot of pressure right above the tail without harming the fish, this should be where you hold the fish most firmly. Place your other hand along the underside of the fish (keeping hands out of gills) holding it firmly but without squeezing the innards of the fish. Note the picture above for proper hand placement. Never hold a fish vertically in either direction.
  3. Keep it in the water - Getting a picture is great. I love to get photos of wild Steelhead, however, do not compromise fish safety for a picture. Wear waders or get your feet a little wet and make sure that fish stays in the water for the majority of the time. If you lift them out of the water for a quick picture return them to the water immediately after. There have been many times where a good picture is just not feasible (a difficult, rocky bank or fishing alone) - in those cases, release the fish and put your camera away. You will have that memory forever and...we'll believe your story! In my opinion it's more important to feel and enjoy the release of a wild fish than get a picture.

huge steelheadSo what is the difference between a "hatchery" and a "wild" fish? Please investigate your local regulations. Often, an intact "adipose" fin indicates that the fish is wild, while a clipped adipose fin, with healed scar show that it is a hatchery fish.

If you live on a river that allows for the harvest of wild steelhead, we would urge you to release them.

Being a proper steward is a responsibility but it should also be the natural inclination of people that love the sport of angling. Thank you for doing your part to ensure more Steelhead get to their spawning gravel to make more big, hard fighting-fish. Bobber Down!


  • Lucas


1 comment

  • I wish this kind of information was a mandatory read for any angler fishing for steelhead. I’m new to the sport and I’m aware this fish is on the endangered species list. It irks me to no end watching guys over play them and then bring them up on the bank and fumble around getting their iPone out for a picture while the fish flops around beating itself up on the rocks. Thanks for taking the time to put this information out there. The first sentence in the WDFW fishing regs for handling steelhead even points out that it’s unlawful (with a couple exceptions) to remove the fish from the water. People either don’t read or they care. I’ll step off my soapbox. Thanks again!

    Tim Campbell on

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