Thursday, March 23, 2017

Steelhead Genetics Project - First Findings


For those of you not aware, the Steelhead Genetics Project (SGP) is a cooperative research project between anglers and the Department of Natural Resources. This project relies in great part on volunteer angler participation to facilitate DNA sample collections. Through a special collection permit granted by the DNR, trained anglers carefully remove scales from presumed wild steelhead, and these samples are then submitted for genetic analysis. The hope for SGP is that it will provide critical information needs to advance rehabilitation efforts for Steelhead in the Minnesota waters of Lake Superior.
This project is evolving, but initial objectives were as follows:
  • Evaluate hybridization between hatchery-raised Kamloops Rainbow Trout and naturalized (wild) Steelhead
  • Examine the utility of genetics to identify adult Steelhead that were stocked as fry and determine their contributions to the adult catch in the North Shore spring fishery 
  • Determine strain composition, genetic variation and structure of wild Rainbow Trout among North Shore Rivers using genetic markers

To this end, a list of sample rivers was developed which covers the entire north shore geographically. Scale samples submitted by each volunteer angler permit holder are individually tagged and marked with other information such as date collected, river location and sex. Where sample size is limited or deficient by location, follow-up surveys are conducted by the DNR using electro-fishing methods to collect additional samples.

Following cataloging of the samples at the Duluth Fisheries Office, each collection packet is sent to the genetics laboratories in St. Paul for testing and analysis.

On Saturday, March 18th 2017, the initial results from the first year of the SGP were released by DNR Migratory Fish Specialist Nick Peterson at the Great Waters Fly Fishing Expo. 

Minnesota Steelheader is here summarizing some of those initial findings from year 1 of the program. We are reserving comment at this time with the following notable exceptions:

1. We strongly encourage each and every one of you reading this post to first gain some historical perspective as well as necessary factual information by reading the following in their entirety:

Evaluation of Madison, Donaldson, and Kamloops Strains of Rainbow Trout in Lake Superior  

Comparative Survival of Naturalized Steelhead, Feral Kamloops, and their Hybrids During Egg and Fry Stages 

Rainbow Trout Management Summary for the Minnesota Waters of Lake Superior and its Tributaries 2012 

Lake Superior Management Plan Draft 

2. The following results are what they are. We caution against a rush to judgement, there are even more critical information needs now going forward than ever before, and we cannot stress enough the importance of continuing with the SGP

SGP Year 1 History and Findings Summary
  • Kamloops have been stocked in Minnesota waters since the early 1970’s
    • Kamloops were originally stocked to provide a creel fishery while attempting to reduce potential negative impact on steelhead during population recovery
    • Limiting the geographic range of stocking was incorporated into the Kamloops program as a way to reduce the potential for genetic introgression (introduction of Kamloops genes into steelhead)
    • There has always been recognition that the potential for hybridization exists
  • Naturally-produced "pure" Kamloops juveniles and adults exist shore-wide
    • Naturally-produced pure adults were sampled in 4 rivers and in Lake Superior
    • Naturally-produced pure juveniles were sampled in 5 rivers
    • Naturalized pure/wild Kamloops are not distinguishable from Steelhead
  • Hybridization is occurring
    • The majority of fish sampled came back as pure steelhead >80%
    • These hybridized fish, "Steelloops" are not distinguishable from Steelhead
    • Gamete wastage (a negative reduction in reproductive/breeding success due to incompatibilities between steelhead and kamloops eggs and sperm) is a concern

Next Steps Year 2
  • Continue the Steelhead Genetics Project in 2017
    • Angler participation is critical
    • Increasing the sample size of adult fish, particularly at small rivers is critical
    • Additional study goals and objectives have been developed, more are being determined
  • Test all French River wild adults before using eggs to preclude hybrid or pure Kamloops from potential steelhead stocking
     We are just scratching the surface of what we can learn from scale sampling genetic research, and it is critical that this cooperative effort continues over the next several years. The SGP Project could not and can not be accomplished without the collaborative efforts of the DNR and volunteer anglers, so thank you to all who have participated. If you plan to continue as a volunteer sample collector, please be sure to contact Nick Peterson (info below) as the collection permit is required to be renewed on an annual basis. And please note, we greatly appreciate your continued participation as we move into year 2 of the project!  

Nick Peterson: Migratory Fish Specialist, MN DNR  |  218-302-3264

    As an organization, Minnesota Steelheader will continue to work closely with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources to further promote and advance the development of the project. 

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Definite Signs of Life

Greetings from the Situation Room at Minnesota Steelheader!

While our North Shore Rivers aren't running green like they do in Chicago this time of year, we are seeing definite signs of life.

 Here where I live, the Blue Jay, Chickadee and Cardinal males have all been trying out their very best pick-up lines on the ladies every morning for the better part of a week; and the pussy willow and maple buds are all swelling despite some pretty chilly temps. If you follow these natural cycles, they have a lot to tell you about what is going on in the world around you.

    So despite being 110.4 miles from my nearest steelhead stream (give or take a 10th of a mile), that Cardinal was telling me I should probably take a closer look. Taking a peek at MODIS satellite imagery shows quite a change. The snow line has retreated considerably, now running in a line from the south shore westward, splitting the State between Mille Lacs and Leech/Winnie. Despite recent lake-effect snow, we're seeing the first good brown-up from Duluth into parts of the mid North Shore.

    Compare that to the images from just over 10 days ago, the change is quite dramatic.

     All of that brown-up is going to help to jump-start the tribs. While consistent temperature data has been hard to come by, our smaller lower shore index stations are beginning to show definite signs of life. Typically from a steelheading perspective, those tribs are usually getting into pre-run steelheading condition anywhere from 7-14 days ahead of larger tribs like the Knife simply because they are smaller and warm that much more quickly, consequently they become good forecasters of what is just over the horizon.

    What really peaks our interest today is that even some of the larger tribs are beginning to shake off their winter slumber. The stream gage below is a perfect example: Here we see daily sun cycle/warming driving snow-melt and flow. That classic heartbeat-like signature is really beginning to develop; and the sharper that daily spike as depicted on the 14th, 15th and 16th, the better we like it and the more closely we begin to watch stream temperatures. We know from the Creel Project data that approximately 10% of our total annual returns to creel occur during what we would call a pre-initiation or pre-run run phase. I don't think we are there yet based on temps, but we are getting very close. Given some decent sun, the next 10-14 days and some data analysis should tell us a lot.

Stay tuned, things are heating up!
Minnesota Steelheader

Sunday, March 05, 2017

Weather 101 for Winter Shore Fishing

    Given the recent shore-fishing clinic, we thought it would be a perfect time to talk about two of the factors which can make or break a shore fishing trip: Wind and Ice. Board Members/Instructors Lisa and Aaron discussed wind directions and their effects on fishing at the clinic, so we are going to run through a few graphics that will help you visualize those considerations better.

   Winter months into the run-up to the spring runs of kamloops and steelhead offer fantastic opportunities to get out and enjoy the resource, and shore fishing really heats up as more and more fish stage near-shore for spawning. But let's face it, it's still winter. While factors such as air temperature, cloud cover, wave action and water clarity all play a part, wind direction and pack ice can play havoc with any shore fishing outing turning what should have been an enjoyable trip into an exercise in patience and endurance.

    Pack ice is certainly more prevalent during winter months, but believe it or not, can hang around well into May. Get the wrong wind and that ice can pile up along the shore making shore fishing difficult if not impossible in a very short period of time.

    Below is some Modis satellite imagery from March 2nd, note the almost complete lack of any visible pack ice within the western arm of Lake Superior encompassing the North and South Shore. All of the ice which is there has been pushed tightly up against the South Shore between the westernmost Apostle Islands and the Superior Ship Canal/Entry. It doesn't look like much, but there is a significant amount there, especially out in front of the Nemadji from the State Line over to the mouth of the Brule.

     In this next image from March 4th, you see the effects of westerly and southerly winds on that same ice as it is pushed off shore from the western arm all the way over to Chequamegon Bay in just under 48 hours. What looked like no ice has suddenly turned into a significant amount out in the lake. And remember, the smallest objects you can see at this resolution are 800 feet across which tells you it's a heck of a lot of ice. I threw Two Harbors and French River in there just so you get a feel for the geography.

       If we get anything like a WSW, SW or South wind, that ice is going to get pushed from its current location right smack into the North Shore and all of the prime shore fishing real estate; and very quickly if it is a strong wind with heavy swell. The practical problem is that even with loose ice, wind and wave action will cause it to compact along the shore. It is dang difficult to fish a bottom line or jig and float, let alone get it through the ice cover to begin with when this happens.

    The practical application for all of this is getting a feel for what you might run into. It's simply about making calculated decisions regarding fishing based on available information. There's no substitute for a boots on the ground buddy report, but this will help you plan absent that kind of connection.

    Ok, so we know that on the 4th of March, pack ice was sailing merrily along in the general direction of the North Shore, what can we look at next if we are planning a shore fishing trip for the 6th for example? There are a plethora of forecasting tools available; I personally use many but my go-to at the present time is Weather Underground It has a bajillion useful tools and the short-term (0-72 hours) forecasting has been reasonably accurate over time which is good enough.

    Back to the proposed trip on the 6th. The graphic below is the 10-Day forecast for Duluth, MN. Looks like a high of 50 with about a 75-80% chance of rain. I'm more concerned with the low of 28 so warm clothes and a rain jacket are in order since we'll be out there early. I also like the overcast and low pressure (black line). Low pressure just seems to be the bomb for any type of hunting/fishing activity. Pressure changes, particularly prolonged high pressure, doesn't seem to make as much difference in stream fishing as it does in lake fishing, presumably due to the nature of moving water, but it's something to think about.

     The biggie here is the wind direction (bottom blue line with arrows) on the 6th. SSE to S winds in the forecast which could potentially move that ice in and cause problems given the wind direction on the 5th as well. One of the things I like about the tools available on Wunderground is you can hover over the forecast map with your mouse and get an hour-by-hour breakdown of the conditions as shown below:

      By simply moving your mouse cursor left and right around the forecast, you get an hourly readout of temperature, precipitation chance, pressure, windspeed and direction: Here at 2 p.m. forecasted 48 degrees, 75% chance of rain, 29.28 in pressure and winds of 14 mph from the SE.

    Putting this all together: Modis imagery plus forecast, we have enough to make a pretty good decision about a trip. It's too bad the images from the 5th aren't finished yet or we would have a more complete picture. If it was up to me, we would still be planning on fishing at this point, but I'm just not sure what is going to happen with that pack ice. There are enough locations to fish along the shore, so everything I see here tells me that if locations between the Lester and Knife are iced up when we actually get there, it's a good bet based on wind directions between now and the 6th that we'll just need to go a little further north to find an ice-free location. Just don't forget your cleats!

Regards and good fishing!
Minnesota Steelheader