Living in Chagrin Falls, in northeast Ohio, we hear local fishermen talking enthusiastically about “Steelhead Alley” and fishing for “steelhead.” “Steelhead Alley” refers to the short Lake Erie tributary streams from west of Cleveland to east of Buffalo, NY: Conneaut Creek, and the Grand, the Chagrin and the Rocky Rivers in Ohio, Elk Creek in Pa and Cattaraugus Creek in NY. These are all part of a narrow strip of the Great Lakes Basin watershed along the south shore of Lake Erie. This area drains into the Gulf of St. Lawrence, while just a few miles to the south, all the streams drain to the Ohio River Basin and the Gulf of Mexico.
Here’s the steelhead story: “just the facts.”
Oncorhynchus mykiss, a salmonid fish, is a West Coast native of cold, fresh water. In its native habitat, O. mykiss has two distinct forms and behaviors. One we call the rainbow trout; rainbows stay in freshwater all their lives. The other, an “anadromous” form a.k.a. “steelhead,” hatches in fresh cold-water streams, migrates into the ocean where they change color and get much, much larger than the resident rainbows. Steelhead return to their natal streams to spawn. The two fish are genetically identical; only their behavior differs.
Back in 1876, after Michiganders had fished the native Au Sable River grayling to extinction, N. W. Clark and Dan Fitzhugh stocked O. mykiss in the Au Sable; reportedly, this was the first introduction of rainbows anywhere east of the Mississippi. And soon, “giant rainbows,” i.e., steelhead, were reported in the Great Lakes.
Salmonid populations in the Great Lakes Basin have had major ups and downs over the past century and a half. In contrast to the streams of mid- and northern Michigan, the northern Ohio rivers are too warm for rainbow trout or other salmonids to survive year-round. However, in the 1980s the state of Ohio joined with New York, Pennsylvania, and Michigan to support stocking steelhead in Lake Erie by the Great Lakes Fishery Committee. Today, some 1.9 million steelhead smolt are stocked annually in Lake Erie tributaries. 58% come from PA hatcheries and Ohio contributes over 400,000 annually from its Castalia hatchery – about 25% of the total stocked in Lake Erie. These are placed in the Vermillion (55,000), the Rocky, the Chagrin, and the Grand Rivers (90,000 each), and in Conneaut Creek (75,000). steelheadAfter stocking the young fish migrate into the Great Lakes, grow, and then return to the “home” rivers where they were stocked. Because of the water temperature, there’s little natural reproduction; the fishery depends on stocking. Even with the modest cost of stocking, steelhead fishing contributes millions of dollars to the economy of northeast Ohio.