Introducing the Behind the Fish Series, where we go one-on-one with various different fishery scientists across the world to better understand a specific species of fish or fishery. From the genetic make-up, feeding habits, fishing techniques, native range, to conservation we dive straight in to learn about the facts that matter and what makes these fish so special.
In an effort to get more understanding about salmon and steelhead conservation in the Pacific Northwest we decided to sit down with John McMillan to learn more about his life, his work and his passion for the conservation of salmon and steelhead in the pacific northwest. John is the current Science Director of Trout Unlimited’s Wild Steelhead Initiative. Check out the full interview below.
Flylords: Who is John McMillan?
John McMillan: Professionally I’m a fishery scientist. For the past 23 years, I’ve spent my career studying salmon and steelhead. Over the last 16 or 17 of those years, I’ve focused on steelhead. I’ve been a research scientist, published quite a few papers and peer-reviewed manuscripts and stuff like that. In 2009, I started working on the Elwah Dam removal project and that was before the dams were out. So I was studying what the populations of fish and habitat looked like prior to dam removal. Then I continued that job through 2015 when I took my current position as the Science Director for Trout Unlimited’s Wild Steelhead Initiative. I’ve been working with Trout Unlimited on the West Coast to try and find ways to advocate, implement, better management practices and do the type of habitat work that’s necessary to basically protect our last best remaining wild steelhead rivers.
A big part of my job now is going around to rivers everywhere from Washington to Idaho, California, and Oregon, even Alaska making sure that we’re doing what we can to ensure that those rivers are going to continue to produce wild steelhead. So that’s my professional side.
On my personal side, I grew up on a steelhead and salmon river in Washington. My dad was an angler, my grandfather had been an angler and my great grandfather had been an angler in Washington and Oregon. So through many generations, I’ve just grown up being someone who loved to be outside and be on rivers. I was pretty lucky as a kid because the river was our backyard and in high water, I could basically stand on my bedroom window and pee out into the river. It was that close.
So being so close to the river and having a dad as an angler, it was just natural that he took me fishing all the time and long periods of that as a young boy were just sitting on the riverbank in winter and summer watching my dad fish and swing a fly rod. I think I caught my first steelhead… well my dad let me land my first steelhead like at age three on a fly rod and I got to hook my first one but I didn’t make the cast. At age 11, I actually caught my first one on a fly by myself.
And so probably from age 12 or 13 onward, I spent almost every hour of every day thinking about how to catch steelhead or going out to snorkel because I did a lot of that as a young boy too. I think it was age 12 that my mom got me like an underwater mask and snorkel. And so I spent a lot of that time in the mile behind our house just watching steelhead. I guess I just love fish. I grew up with them and that childhood passion is carried over into my adult life.
Flylords: What is the difference between a steelhead and rainbow trout?
John McMillan: So basically a rainbow trout and steelhead are both the same species, Oncorhynchus. The only difference is really a steelhead is a rainbow trout that goes to the ocean and returns to swarm and freshwater. So rainbow trout technically spend their entire lives in freshwater without going to the ocean. And the only difference with the steelhead is that the steelhead that goes out to sea.
Flylords: What’s the main difference between a salmon and steelhead?
John McMillan: Salmon and steelhead are both very similar species, but the main difference is that salmon are pre-programmed to die. They’re what we call a semelparous fish, which commit all of their energy reserves to their eggs and sperm and secondary sexual development. And because they commit so much of their energy to eggs and spawning they don’t have enough energy left to survive. So they die.
On the other hand, steelhead are not that way. Steelhead aren’t pre-programmed to die and so even though spawning can take a toll and most steelhead do die after spawning, a number of those fish can return to the ocean again, grow, get enough fat in the ocean through their food sources to then get to rebuild their sperm and egg production and then return to spawn again. So steelhead can spawn more than one time.
I think the other different part for steelhead is that they have more life histories than any salmon species. A life history is what a fish does to achieve maturity. For example, we delineate fish into life histories based on how long they spend in freshwater. Like a steelhead might spend one year, two years, three or four years, sometimes even five years in freshwater before migrating to the ocean. So a fish that spends one year in freshwater and then two years in the ocean has one life history and a fish that spends two years in freshwater and one in the oceans, another life history.
While salmon typically express somewhere between three to four up to maybe a little over a dozen life histories. There are fewer options to draw from when they’re trying to survive in the environments. Steelhead populations tend not to fluctuate as much year to year as salmon do. I like to call… like pink salmon, for example, basically, they have one life history. They almost all do the same thing and I like to call them kind of the Bitcoin of the salmon world. Really variable. And if the ocean conditions are bad then in one year you might get a run back that’s only 50,000 to 100,000 fish. But if the ocean conditions are really good, you might get several million back. And on the other hand, steelhead populations might fluctuate from a thousand to a few thousand fish but they’re never fluctuating from like a thousand fish to 20,000 or 20,000 fish to a million.
So because salmon put most of their eggs in one or two baskets, their variability from year to year tends to be greater than steelhead. And then lastly, I would say that steelhead have the resident component, which is very rare in most salmon. So steelhead and rainbow trout do interbreed and that provides benefits to both populations. So this means that when you have periods of bad ocean survival, some rivers still have a really large population of rainbow trout to draw from that can help rebuild the steelhead population.
Flylords: How does an angler know if the fish they caught was a steelhead or a rainbow trout (assuming there are both resident rainbows and steelhead in the system)?
John McMillan: This can be really difficult. Generally, they’re pretty easy to tell apart because when the steelhead go to the ocean, they change coloration and become very silvery and get a dark back and that provides them camouflage in the ocean. So when you catch a steelhead for one, they tend to be larger than a rainbow trout. But the main difference is really the coloration that steelhead tends to be more silvery on entering freshwater with kind of dark sea line on the back. It’s a black back or green back. They have nice silvery sides and a white kind of pillowy colored belly.
The difficult part becomes when the steelhead starts to change colors. So a steelhead that had been in fresh water for a period of time and they get closer to spawning, they themselves begin to take on that green and olive coloration and often get a red stripe on their side for the males. And so that period of time it can be really hard to distinguish a steelhead from a rainbow trout. The best way to do so in these situations is a rainbow trout can have lots of spots all the way down to their belly, while 80 to 90% of steelhead spots tend to mostly occur above the lateral line and they won’t run all the way under their belly.
Now all that said, there are some lakes where rainbow trout, like if you’re in the Kamloops lakes in BC for example, with a lot of rainbow trout in lakes. In lakes at times, if you’re not sure because some lakes do give returns of steelhead and rainbow trout and those situations that can be really difficult. Maybe the only way you can tell them apart is actually by taking a scale from the fish and have that scale tell you whether the official to the ocean or not.
Flylords: What is the difference between a hatchery and a wild steelhead?
John McMillan: So the main difference between hatchery and wild steelhead is that the wild fish lived their entire life in nature. And of course, that process means that there’s lots of mortality. So generally from the time when a wild steelhead in nature is born after it hatches from its egg to the time that it becomes a smolt, you’re going to lose anywhere from 70 to 90% of those fish. That’s a lot of mortality.
With the hatchery fish, the adults are brought into a hatchery, and spawned artificially. And then the juveniles and the eggs of course are reared in what we call a raceway. So the juveniles are put into concrete ponds or circular tanks and they’re fed every day and they live underwater temperatures that don’t vary like they do in nature.
They get a lot more food than they would ever get in nature. And because they provide such good conditions for growth in the hatchery, the juvenile steelhead in the hatchery tend to grow much faster than they grow in nature. I go back to diversity in that because the hatchery rearing environment is a very simple environment that tends to produce a very simple set of life histories.
Some wild steelhead will grow in places that might become de-watered during the summer. Other fish might grow in places that are more prone to floods. And because they occupy all those diverse habitats, they end up with a lot of different life issues. They are more resilient.
So we say the main difference between a hatchery and wild steelhead is that they’re raised in very different environments and those different environments have effects on the fish. And then a hatchery that basically simplifies the number life histories so earlier as I had said, for example, a big population of wild steelhead might have 30 to 40 life histories and a population of hatchery steelhead might have one to four life histories.
Flylords: Would you say that on average a hatchery steelhead is not going to return to that home river as often as a wild fish?
John McMillan: I would say three things in general about the patterns we see in hatchery fish. The first is hatchery steelhead do not survive nearly as well in nature as wild fish. And that’s even the case if you take a wild fish and bring it into the hatchery for one generation and then rear it and then kick it’s smolts out. Those fish still don’t survive as well as wild fish. So that’s important.
The second component is that recent research indicates that over 700 genes are changed during the hatchery rearing process in steelhead. And these are what we call epigenetic changes and I won’t get into all that, but basically what is happening is that the hatchery influences how genes are upregulated. And again, it’s just a really complex situation but what you can say is that the hatchery rearing process… by rearing fish at really high densities, somehow that’s changing the way that genes are expressed in hatchery fish compared to wild fish.
And lastly, then I would say you’re right. Hatchery fish do tend to stray more than wild fish. So they’re less likely to return to their home river where they were released. That is because most wild steelhead… outside of California spend two to three years in freshwater and the fish gets imprinted on the chemical cues where they’re born every spring. A hatchery steelhead only gets one year to imprint on its marine environment while the wild fish might have two to three years to imprint. That strength of imprinting determines how well the fish home back to their original location. So you’re right that hatchery fish tend to, they do what we call, they stray more than wild fish tend to.
Flylords: How do salmon and steelhead know where to and navigate to their home river?
John McMillan: So for a long time, people hypothesize that somehow salmon were using the magnetic field on the earth, which is basically like a grid. And lots of animals use the magnetic fields to orient themselves. But recent research in the last few years has definitely indicated that that’s how salmon and steelhead are finding their way home from the big ocean. So once they’re out in the big ocean, they basically use the magnetic field to orient themselves so they can get close enough to their home river. Then when they get close enough to their home river, they start to use the chemical cues in the water, they smell.
They basically use their olfactory senses to smell their home river. And then they start to follow that smell all the way back home until the signal gets strong enough to the point where they actually feel like they might spawn in the exact same red location as their parents spawned or it might be within a kilometer or so. But they’re probably going to return to a place that’s pretty close to where they spawned. But it’s a magnetic field and then just smelling the difference in the water.
Flylords: What is your opinion on hatchery fish at this day and age? Are there river systems that you think it’s all right that hatchery programs are in place or do you think that hatchery programs are having a negative impact on rivers systems?
John McMillan: I think it is complex and I think over the past five years of working with steelhead and then my history as a scientist and an angler the science has become really clear. The overwhelming body of evidence for steelhead indicates that hatchery fish most of the time have a negative effect on wild steelhead. There’s kind of one situation where that’s not the case and that’s when your steelhead population is almost extinct and you’re trying to give it like a demographic boost just to basically add more breeding members to the population. In those cases, hatcheries can really improve diversity. But I would say this, I think that science is pretty clear on the effect that hatchery steelhead has on wild steelhead. It can be ecological through competition for food. It can be through interbreeding and genetics.
It can all also be through predation because once hatchery fish are released from the hatchery they tend to attract a lot of predators. It’s like if I opened my chicken coop with my dog and my dog was a bird hunting dog, she’s likely to kill them all because they are naive to the concept of predators.
Up here on the Olympic Peninsula for example, where I live, we’ve got some of the best remaining habitat. A lot of it’s in the National Park and we think these are ideal places that probably should remain all wild. So I guess if you look at it like that, I think every river and population requires its own decision and that can be cumbersome. What I’ve tried to select the best remaining wild steelhead rivers in the Pacific Northwest. We have some on the Oregon coast, we have some in California and just looking at these different rivers and then saying if the river has pretty good habitat and it’s still producing a lot of wild fish, those are places that we should commit to being wild and manage the fisheries well. On the other hand, we have other places that are more degraded. Those places are well suited to the hatchery. So I think we’re looking at a balance where the best places remain wild and those places that have almost no chance of having a fishery otherwise are the best places for hatcheries.
Flylords: Could you talk about a success story of one of the projects that you’ve worked/working on with Wild Steelheaders United?
John McMillan: The work on the Elwah River. So this has been the largest dam removal project in North America. And there was a lot of consideration locally over whether they should be removed. Lots of people said it will be a failure. It’s not going to work. And this resulted in lots of discussion amongst conservation groups, anglers, and scientists. But the end result was that the managers ended up using some hatchery production for species like chinook, coho and winter steelhead to try and rebuild those runs. One of the populations that didn’t have a hatchery effect were the summer steelhead. And every year I snorkeled, I was lucky maybe to see one or two adults summer steelhead.
So they were almost down to zero, but they had thousands of rainbow trout above the dams. They removed the dam and as soon as they removed the upper dam at Glines Canyon river mile 15, that place is only been open, accessible to steelhead since 2016. And in the last three years, the population of the summer steelhead has rocketed to almost to about 900 fish last year. And the population did this also in probably the worst set of ocean conditions we’ve had in the past 40 years for steelhead in the North Pacific, like the Skeena river only got I think 17,000 wild steelhead back this year. So they’ll get almost a thousand steelhead back to a river while other adjacent OP rivers are only getting maybe 50-200 fish per year and the best rivers in Puget Sound are probably producing a similar number. That is really encouraging.
I was so excited to see that because I felt it was the one… I always have to say this but my dad and my grandpa always told me as a kid you were born a generation too late. All the great angling is gone. We’ve developed the rivers, killed all the fish and the Elwah River is one place where some father is going to be able to tell his son or daughter I was born a generation too early. You kids are going to have better fishing and opportunities for wild steelhead in the Elwah River than any generation has in the past a hundred years. And I think that’s like one of the few small but really big success stories. You can look forward to more fish and better fishing.
Flylords: What do you think is the biggest challenge you face in the light of salmon/steelhead conservation?
John McMillan: A big challenge we have had is implementing the portfolio concept of hatchery and wild rivers. For instance, Trout Unlimited, and others spent considerable time over the past three years working with anglers and managers to identify rivers that could remain free from hatchery steelhead and those where we would use hatcheries. There is now a formal agreement that the whole Skagit basin will be managed solely for wild steelhead for the next eight years. And while we spent 3-4 years working on the issue, others have spent the past 10-20 years working on the Skagit. So it’s really…. like a grind, man. Lots and lots of work to just get one wild steelhead river. We believe a place like the Skagit River is an ideal place for a population of all wild steelhead. And I almost have to put it as a sports term, which was that if you played football… this conservation for wild steelheads is like playing football in the fifties. It’s like three yards and a cloud of dust.
There are no big gains, there are no home runs. I feel like this has been a long time coming, 10 to 15 years of different groups of people trying to ensure the Skagit remains a wild steelhead river. Thus, while the work is hard and the gains can be small, we broke a longer run with the Skagit, and that is rewarding. But, I always wonder if people know just how many years of my life and other people’s lives it really takes to kind of commit yourself to protect a watershed because it might take a decade or even two decades to get the outcome that you’re really hoping for.
Flylords: From your Instagram feed, it looks like you do a lot of river snorkeling. Can you tell us a little bit about this?
John McMillan: I love to snorkel, I started because I want to know what the fish we’re doing as an angler when I was a kid but eventually it became fun itself as much and sometimes more fun than angling. In the summer I’m basically in a wetsuit and in the winter I wear a dry suit. And usually, my goal is to try and get photographs or video of fish. It’s not uncommon for me to have to wait for 20 minutes to 30 minutes for the fish to calm down.
I definitely snorkel more than I fish now and stuff and part of it is we really don’t have summer steelhead up here. We have cutthroat fish in the summer and I like fishing for cutthroat, but with the Elwah dam being removed, I have so many opportunities to shoot fish in the Elwah but I’ve been doing that more that I’ve been fishing in summer.
Flylords: What kind of camera gear do you use underwater?
John McMillan: I started out with a point and shoot Canon like 12 years ago and then I gradually kind of worked my way up. I’m using a Sony A7RII and an autocam housing. So it’s like in a nice aluminum housing and I tend to use one lens underwater more than others. And that’s a 16 by 35 F4. So it’s a nice wide-angle lens. It gives you those shots of big fish that are really nice. But I also use a 90 macro to shoot juvenile fish, smaller critters. And then I use two strobes on the outer part of the housing. So the housing, the camera, and the strobes end up weighing about 15 to 18 pounds. It’s pretty heavy. And that’s the one crappy part is just lugging that thing up and down rivers all day trying to like get shots of fish.
Flylords: Go to steelhead fly rod?
John McMillan: Burkheimer 9143.
Flylords: What would you say your home river is?
John McMillan: Sol Duc River
Flylords: Favorite fly color?
John McMillan: I would have to go blue and black is my favorite color, even though I don’t use it as much because so many people use it now. But I would have to say blue and black. I just don’t think I can pass it off.
Flylords: Unweighted or weighted?
John McMillan: Yeah. Winter it’s weighted and summer I’m going to go with an unweighted fly.
Flylords: What is one tip for a beginner steelhead angler?
John McMillan: To experiment. Don’t get it a rut. Like I think a lot of people come out of steelheading and they have a vision for how that works. And I just remind people that experiment, that’s an important thing. So if you’re a beginner, don’t be afraid to pick up different rods and lines to find what you like to cast best. Don’t be afraid to try different sink tips and flies to figure out what we like to fish best. I found one that I was fishing in ways that my dad enjoyed. Sometimes that was fun, but other times I didn’t enjoy it. So I always told an angler to experiment and find exactly what you do to fish. Because when we’re swinging flies for steelhead, most of the time if you’re not catching fish. Like 99% of your day is nothing. So that 99% of the day better be enjoyable, which is why I like to find a rod and line and just something I really like to fish with. And that only comes from me through experimentation.
Flylords: With the decline of steelhead and salmon in the past a decade, should new anglers not have confidence in catching fish?
John McMillan: Steelheading depends on generating new anglers. Because anglers are some of the very best and sometimes the only advocates that the wild steelhead and their habitat has. And that means that the future of steelheading depends on having more anglers taking up the sport and then getting involved. Most of these are driven by changes in ocean conditions, but increasingly these are also being shaped by climate change. Bad drought, summers, bad floods in winter. So it doesn’t look pretty for the future. But I would say this, that an angler should be hopeful because there’s never been any better science or any more effort put forth to run a wild steelhead than there’s now at this point in time. I think it is starting to bear fruit.
As anglers, we can all regulate how many fish we catch every day. And that’s one thing that I tell the people. I’ve fished bait, I fished almost every method known to humans for steelhead. And my favorite way is the swung fly. And another reason I love the swung fly is I’m not going to catch 20 or 10 or 15 in a day, right? I can regulate myself. So the population isn’t doing well, I can still go on fishing and maybe I’m lucky enough to get a fish every couple days or every week. So I can still be on the river, enjoy it, but I know that I’m really having no measurable impact. I think anglers should always be aware of the methods they choose if they’re really concerned in that way.
We need more anglers to get involved because the future is steelhead depends on anglers. And even though things look bad sometimes in the Pacific Northwest with climate change but to remind people climate change is also starting to open up lots of new habitat in the Arctic, Alaska, and even further North. And so as those watersheds begin to be more influenced, as Alaska becomes warmer, that’s going to open up a lot of new habitat for steelhead that had not been previously used by steelhead. So there is actually some hope for the future outside of the Northwest in terms of just climate change, melting glaciers. And when it melts glaciers and melt snow and it warms things up, those areas become more productive for salmon and steelhead for the North. And then I’ll remind people lastly, I would say that even though the OP rivers are struggling right now, the places in Northern California and Southern Oregon, those fish tend to go out to different places in the ocean than the steelhead from further North.
Flylords: What are some ways that anglers can get involved with steelhead and salmon conservation?
John McMillan: Yeah, I would say first is get to know your own watershed, your home watershed. And go out and just become educated on that. And once you feel sufficiently educated on a topic that you’re concerned about, then you start to get involved by introducing yourself to local biologists who work on the issues. So that’s one way as individuals. To work in your home watershed, find a topic, become knowledgeable about it, and then get involved. And the other way I’ve said that’s kind of the blood, sweat, and tears. That’s the personal way.
So the other way that people get involved is to donate money to groups like TU and Trout Unlimited’s Wild Steelhead Initiative where we have a really large set of staff, a lot of really good scientists, a lot of people working on habitat. We’re working all across the West Coast. So if people want to help us out, they can go to wildsteelheaders.org.
Flylords: Is there anything else that you want to add?
John McMillan: I would say I don’t want anglers to be so concerned that they stop fishing for a fish that we all love because I just want to hit on that again, I think the conservation strides groups like TU are making because we have a lot of members, are going to play a big role in doing what we can to rebuild fish and provide better fisheries in the future.
Be sure to follow John on Instagram at @rainforest_steel, his posts are very educational and informational to help shed some more light on the salmon and steelhead conservation work he is doing.
To support John, his work and Trout Unlimited be sure to check out the Wild Steelheaders Initiative online here.