By bits and pieces, trial and error, Ohio’s steelhead program has proven itself in the hearts and minds of tens of thousands of anglers.
Tumbling down the rabbit hole first by stocking coho salmon into a couple of Lake Erie tributaries in Northeast Ohio during the late 1960s and up until 1988, the Ohio Department of Natural Resources then hitched its wagon to the Chinook salmon for one decade.
When the agency saw that king salmon returns were no better than they were for coho salmon, the Wildlife Division also began to augment the program by pouring young brown trout into other Lake Erie tributaries, all of which were also located in Northeast Ohio.
Somewhere along that rabbit hole fall a light bulb went off and the Wildlife Division’s fisheries section hit on the idea of stocking rainbow trout, a.k.a., steelhead trout.
“I’m proud of the fact that Ohio became the first Great Lakes state to stock steelhead only,” said Phil Hillman, fisheries management administrator for the Wildlife Division’s Northeast Ohio office in Akron.
Hillman made his scientific-based observations – both technical and anecdotal – during the annual Lake County Outdoor Writers Fish Camp. Hosted by the Lake County Visitors Bureau and Lake Metroparks the quarter-century-old Fish Camp is an annual coming together of writers and guests to experience first-hand the Wildlife Division’s highly successful and enormously popular steelhead-fishing program.
Tinkering even further the Wildlife Division abandoned stocking trout raised at its London (Ohio) hatchery and instead began obtaining steelhead eggs from Michigan.
Specifically these eggs are obtained still from fish captured from Michigan’s Little Manistee River, a Lake Michigan tributary. Michigan sets up its trout-catching weir sometime in early March, strips the females of its eggs, keeps a goodly number for itself and pawns the rest to Ohio and Indiana.
These eggs have been – and are still being - hatched out of the state’s cold-water Castalia Fish Hatchery near Sandusky.
This new breed of steelhead trout and subsequent management strategy became a watershed, eureka, moment for the Wildlife Division’s cold-water, Lake Erie tributary trout stocking/fishing program.
And the cost to raise these trout for stocking purposes is one-tenth that for muskies: $1 per fish for the former and $10 per fish for the latter, Hillman says.
And to think the state’s nearly 50-year-old salmonid program began because then Ohio Governor James A. Rhodes bled scarlet-and-gray.
“Governor Rhodes ordered the Division to begin stocking cohos because Michigan was stocking cohos into Lake Michigan,” said a chuckling Hillman.
Hillman said also that Ohio is “in the same ballpark with all of the other states in terms of the catch rates for steelhead trout.”
“We’ve seen a two- to three-fold increase in fishing pressure with the catch rates also going up,” Hillman told the outdoor writers. “And we’ve seen anglers from nearly every other state come here specifically for steelhead, including anglers from Montana and Texas.”
That highly evolved catch rate likewise has spawned a locally brewed growth industry annually worth tens of millions of dollars.
So too has the program led to the development of various fishing clubs and organizations that champion the Wildlife Division’s steelhead program.
Such groups as the Ohio Central Basin Steelheaders arose due to the program. Meanwhile, the Eastlake-based Chagrin River Salmon Association retained the program’s historic salmon roots while it grew into a club that’s embraced the Little Manistee strain of steelhead trout.
So successful is Ohio’s steelhead program and its hatchery system that Ohio State Auditor’s research says the job cannot be done better privately, Hillman says.
Likewise, says Hillman, other states have begun to emulate the Ohio Division of Wildlife’s program, hoping to score similar praise.
A good chunk of Ohio’s success at its grow-stock-catch steelhead program rests on the broad shoulders of the state’s anglers themselves, notes Hillman.
Angler surveys note that steelhead anglers by and large have clutched the two-fish-per person-per-day creel limit so close to their fishing vests that estimates point to a return rate of 90 percent.
Further, says Hillman, the fishery is self-regulating to some degree. It doesn’t take much for a steelhead angler to withdraw his cell phone and report a trout-fishing violation to the Wildlife Division, says Hillman.
Which is in sharp contrast to what is often the case with the Maumee River run of walleye that seems to draw out the worst in some anglers, Hillman says as well.
What lies ahead this year for stocking steelhead trout is the insertion of up to 425,000 trout – each measuring six to nine inches long and called “smolts” – into five Lake Erie tributaries: The Chagrin, Grand and Rocky rivers (about 90,000 fish each), the Vermillion River (about 55,000 fish), and Conneaut Creek (about 75,000 fish with the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission stocking another approximately 75,000 fish measuring six to eight inches each into its stretch of this stream).
That some of these fishes will stray into such non-stocked streams as the Ashtabula River along with Cowles, Wheeler, Arcola creeks and other small Lake Erie tributaries helps demonstrate that Ohio’s steelhead fisheries program remains an “imperfect” one, says Hillman.
And that so-named imperfection is complicated by several other factors that range from possible climate change conditions to the most feared of all, the persistence of the sea lamprey.
This nasty parasitic creature lives quietly in certain Lake Erie tributary streams until adulthood when it then migrates into Lake Erie. Once there an adult sea lamprey- which can grow to nearly three feet in length - becomes a horror of a freak show, an organism that can kill up to 40 pounds worth of host fish.
Yet while eradication is virtually impossible for several reasons, international efforts continue to try and minimize the threat, Hillman says, noting that tributaries of various Lake Erie and the other four Great Lakes stream are treated with a chemical to kill the sea lamprey’s larval stage.
Of growing concern, however, is that scientific evidence is suggesting that the sea lamprey’s ramped up population may be due to spawning occurring in both the Detroit River as well as Conneaut Creek, says Hillman as well.
Even so and while Ohio’s steelhead program continues to see prickly problems such as the intrusion of the irksome sea lamprey, the successes are more than keeping one step ahead in the game.
And to think the program’s genesis was kicked started by a governor who just could not stomach having Michigan win the game of one-upmanship.
By Jeffrey L. Frischkorn
Jeff is the retired News-Herald reporter who covered the earth sciences, the area's three county park systems and the outdoors for the newspaper. During his 30 years with The News-Herald Jeff was the recipient of more than 100 state, regional and national journalism awards. He also is a columnist and features writer for the Ohio Outdoor News, which is published every other week and details the outdoors happenings in the state