Steelie stocks shifting

Castalia, Ohio — The Ohio Division of Wildlife has had to use its “Plan B” for the agency’s steelhead fisheries program in both 2015 and 2016.

And might again in 2017 if Michigan’s Little Manistee strain of steelhead trout remain uncooperative.

For several years the wildlife division has obtained fertilized steelhead eggs from the Michigan DNR. Michigan’s fisheries biologists would strip live-net-captured female steelhead of their eggs and males of their sperm, or milt. The fishes came from that state’s Little Manistee River, on the upper west coast of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula and also a Lake Michigan tributary.

These fertilized eggs were then transported to the Ohio Division of Wildlife’s Castalia Trout Hatchery. There the eggs hatched in steelhead fry, growing and fattening up for eventual release into several Northeast Ohio streams.

However, for reasons associated with nature and egg availability and not politics or college football, Ohio was unable to obtain Michigan/Little Manistee River steelhead eggs.

Consequently, Ohio wildlife authorities turned to the Wisconsin DNR. And here Wisconsin plumbed its Lake Michigan tributaries for Chamber Creek and Gaharaska River strains of steelhead. The former stream is found in Washington State and the latter stream in the Province of Ontario.

Importantly for Ohio’s steelhead fisheries program, the fish that develop from the Wisconsin-supplied eggs are scarcely different from those trout that develop from Michigan’s Little Manistee-supplied eggs, says Phil Hillman, the fish management administrator for the Ohio Division of Wildlife’s District 3 (Northeast Ohio) office.

“Our first priority is to obtain eggs from Little Manistee steelhead but we had to look elsewhere so that was Wisconsin,” Hillman said. “It’s good to have a back-up.”

In fact, says Hillman, when the wildlife division was first angling for a replacement for its home-grown London strain of rainbow trout, the agency looked at the possibility of utilizing the Chamber Creek strain found in Wisconsin.

“That strain has been a very solid performer wherever it’s been stocked,” Hillman said.

Hillman said the wildlife division even offered an exchange of some sort for the eggs but Wisconsin was happy to oblige.

So what Ohio obtained in both 2015 and 2016 were already fertilized eggs, enough in each case to fuel the state’s Castalia Hatchery to raise and then release 450,000-plus steelhead for stocking into five Northeast Ohio streams: the Vermilion, Rocky, Chagrin, and Grand rivers along with Conneaut Creek, says Hillman.

And possibly for this year as well: the Ashtabula River, which might see a planting in April of around 50,000 six- to eight-inch long steelhead, Hillman says.

For Ohio’s trout anglers, Hillman quickly points out, the deviations between Little Manistee steelhead and the trout raised from the Wisconsin-supplied eggs are negligible in terms of what to expect fishing-wise.

“The timing of the runs is much the same, and the lengths and weights will be similar (too),” Hillman said.

Asked if it might make sense for the wildlife division to capture its own steelhead stock from one of the Northeast Ohio streams, Hillman said such an effort is technically achievable but less practical than simply knocking on the door of a neighboring Great Lakes state natural resources department.

“That would likely require us to close off a portion of one stream during the run and also require us to perform extensive testing for disease,” Hillman said. “It’s a whole lot less expensive to obtain eggs elsewhere.”

And if Little Manistee strain fish are once again unavailable, well, then, Wisconsin has become a dependable partner, says Hillman.

“We’re happy to get the eggs from Wisconsin, and we very much appreciate that state’s willingness to help us. We don’t want to see any interruption in our successful steelhead fisheries program,” Hillman said.

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