The Great Steelhead Rescue

Soon after a century-old mill dam was destroyed by flooding, the small creek behind Jeff Opperman's house played host to dozens of steelhead making their way up the Chagrin River. The freshwater scientist with The Nature Conservancy used their arrival as an opportunity to reflect on nature in the age of human domination.

A steelhead trout.     Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Native or not, these steelhead are ambassadors of wonder that can connect all of us to what persists.

March in northeast Ohio delivered several unexpected gifts: Day after day of pure sunshine, and river monsters that slipped silently into our backyard.

On a cool and clear Saturday, those river monsters dragged me from a self-seeded mental briar patch of angst and distraction. As someone who’s written about nature’s value as refuge in our too-often over-committed and frenetic world, they delivered a bracing reminder to practice what I preach.

The day started with the realization that I had dropped the ball. My wife, Paola, had searched for the perfect cabin for our spring break, leaving me to choose between two (alas, we had a surprising number of variables to fulfill, including a pond for my fishing-obsessed fourth grader, Luca). Her email with the links to my choices sank deep into my inbox, and I never responded. Four days went by and, that Saturday, we called; both were booked earlier that day.

Needless to say, Paola was not happy. I stammered, protested, apologized, and then vowed I’d solve the problem.

I sat down at the dining room table, opened my laptop, and began my quest for redemption. Luca filled the vacuum of parental oversight by playing Roblox, a stealth invader freely available on the Internet that had crept past our imperfect vigilance of “screen time.”

I wallowed in my failure and the pitiful irony of it all: a gorgeous Saturday spent on a computer, trying to atone for my distracted oversight as my son played video games; I searched for a vacation retreat in nature even as sunlight loped through the trees of the small patch of forest behind our house.

My daughter broke the dark spell. She stood in the kitchen, a hat pulled down almost to her eyes, and said, “Daddy, let’s go look for treasure in the creek.” Wren had a knack for finding things buried in the gravel of our backyard: bricks from old houses, a toy tin car from the 1930s. These treasures were slowly shuffling their way down the creek, moving a few feet in a flood, then buried again in gravel, waiting for the next flood’s nudge—or for a budding archaeologist to unearth them.

I sighed, closed my laptop, and joined her.

We walked through the woods searching the ground for the season’s first ramps poking through the wet leaves. As we approached a long, flat glide of the creek I saw something out of the corner of my eye. A large, dark shape darted in the clear water under the surface.

It so briefly crossed through the edge of my vision that I was at a loss, “What the ... is that an otter?” I couldn’t think of anything else that size that could be in our tiny creek—easily crossed by a jump or two on most days.

I clambered over the rocks toward the water, and it darted again. Now looking right at it—a dark torpedo with a v-shaped wake—it clicked. I’d seen this before, salmon knifing through the shallows of a California river. But I still struggled to reconcile this fish with its surroundings. It seemed as logical as a chimp swinging from the oak by our deck.

Another step, another click. “Steelhead! Wren, there are steelhead in the creek!”

Now I remembered. Just a year before, a huge flood had destroyed a century-old mill dam on the Chagrin River, six miles downstream. The dam had been the primary barrier for steelhead trout swimming up the Chagrin from Lake Erie. (Steelhead are simply rainbow trout that live the life of a salmon. They are born in a stream, grow large in the ocean, or in this case, a Great Lake, then return to their birthplace to spawn.) When the dam blew out, I told Luca that the steelhead should be able to swim all the way to Chagrin Falls. But I didn’t expect them in our creek. Though a small tributary to the Chagrin, our creek’s connection to the river was through a 570-foot culvert buried under a road, apartment building, and parking lot.

But there they were. Searching the clear water, I saw four of them huddled in the deepest part of the long pool, tucked under some overhanging roots. Another hunkered down next to a rock, looking almost comically out of proportion with its surroundings, like a Great Dane riding in a mini Cooper. The giant fish must have come up during the recent storm when the creek was high. A week of clear weather followed the storm and the water had dropped and now most of the creek was too shallow for them.

I pulled out my phone and called home: “Luca, you’ve got to see this. There are steelhead in the creek!”

He appeared ridiculously fast, as if he’d beamed down (or apparated, in his worldview) rather than walked the 400 feet down a steep slope and through the swamp of skunk cabbage.

The kids were enthralled. But they could recognize the fish were oversized for their surroundings and they began to ask about their future.

I knew that the Lake Erie steelhead were maintained by a hatchery because there was little natural reproduction; juvenile steelhead need one to two years in a stream, and our streams simply get too warm during the late summer for them to survive. Thinking that their appearance in this creek must have required unusual flow conditions, I couldn’t imagine them getting out on their own. “Well, the creek is going to keep getting lower and warmer and they’ll probably die,” I told them, speaking like a biologist.

The kids didn’t want a biologist. They wanted Cousin Diego, or really anybody who would roll up their sleeves and step in and intervene with nature’s harsh realities. “Can’t we save them?” they pleaded.

I didn’t know what to say. We probably should just leave them alone and let “nature run its course.” On the other hand, I thought, what about the native fish of the stream? The steelhead were stocked in the Great Lakes beginning in the 1960s as a replacement for dwindling populations of lake trout. These introduced giants were now in our relatively healthy stream. Unlike salmon, steelhead continue to feed on their upstream migration, and I thought they could wipe out the comparatively puny resident fish during their few weeks’ visit. And then I caught myself—what the hell’s wrong with me? Stop thinking like a scientist and just let the kids have fun.

We got a net and a five-gallon bucket and the great steelhead rescue was on.

I waded into the deep part of the pool and flushed a fish upstream. Once it was in the shallows Luca pounced with his net.

The first fish we caught was shockingly big and beautiful, a blaze of red shot through a constellation of black spots on its glistening flanks. Its gill covers too glowed an angry red. As I transferred it from the net to the bucket it flexed and fought, and I struggled to hold on to its 10 pounds of surging muscle.

I awkwardly carried the sloshing bucket to the river, and we released the fish into the flowing water. We repeated that two more times. The net broke capturing the third fish, so the next two we caught with our bare hands.

We sat on the banks of the Chagrin River, exhausted and thrilled. Speaking with an authoritative air, I told the kids that it must have been unusual flow conditions that allowed them to come up our stream, and that we’d just experienced a wonderful, but rare, gift.

The next week there were 25.

A few days after a small rain, Luca came running up from the creek screaming that it was full of steelhead. I was sure he was exaggerating, but headed down to see. I started at the culvert and walked upstream. I saw one hiding at the edge of a small pool and waded in. Suddenly the pool exploded with four to five fish bursting out, brushing over my feet and knocking into my legs. As I waded upstream, I could see steelhead tucked into nearly every possible spot that provided enough depth to cover their backs. He wasn’t exaggerating. Our creek was full of steelhead.

Far too many to rescue, I thought. Nature would have to take its course this time.

And eventually it did. But first, the kids took their course. As the creek shrank again, they dammed up areas to make deep “rehabilitation ponds” and transferred the fish there. They reported that they were able to get a half dozen into the culvert and that the fish swam away downstream even though the water was just an inch deep through the concrete box.

For a week, the whole neighborhood was captivated. After school, the kids gathered to watch the fish and move them to safer spots, if they could. They gave the fish names and reported on their distinct qualities. The creek, and perhaps all creeks, will never look quite the same to them.

These steelhead seem an apt symbol for nature in the anthropocene—the recently dubbed name for our current geologic era, one characterized by human domination of earth’s major systems. Here the steelhead are a non-native species introduced to salvage a fishery in damaged lakes. The lakes have made great progress and now support commercial and recreational fisheries valued in the billions. Lake Erie, once declared “biologically dead,” now offers up more fish than the other Great Lakes combined in an economically vital fishery composed of both native and introduced species. The lakes need continued attention with invasive species, climate change, and agricultural runoff threatening to erode decades of progress.

Native or not, these steelhead are ambassadors of wonder that can connect all of us to what persists: lakes and rivers that have been roughed up over the years but still remain the sources of incredible value to the people of the region. They remind us of our responsibilities, both for past losses and for the future. The anthropocene may mean we’ve left our mark nearly everywhere, but it doesn’t mean that nature has been banished. We still depend on it, whether for clean drinking water or for the adrenaline rush of magnificent, fighting fish that link us to a primal past and shake us to be present in the present.

We had a freakishly warm March, with seven straight days in the 80s. Fuzzy white fungus began to grow on the steelheads' back and sides. Stinky carcasses, sometimes 30 feet from the creek, revealed that possums, raccoons, and coyotes were also enjoying a wonderful gift.

Finally, there was just one left —diminutive, almost small enough to be appropriately proportioned to this creek. He was likely a “jack,” a precocious male that returns early as a small fish to surreptitiously join the reproductive dance by sidling up alongside a mating giant like a shepherd boy consorting with a goddess beneath the folds of Zeus’ own robe.

Preordained to be scrappy, he persisted weeks longer than the rest, lurking in a deep pool where the kids had moved him with an enormous gnarled root mass providing a labyrinth of cover. He made it through the early hot spell and, who knows, perhaps is still hunkered down in his deep, cool refuge.

I asked Luca what his name was, reflecting on the others they’d given: Wren Jr., Luca Jr., Aidan Jr., Bomdiggity, Bomdiggity Jr., and Sir Awesome.

“Sir Viver,” he said, “Get it? Sir ... Viver?”

Like nature in the anthropocene: surviving, fighting, persisting and, where given the chance, thriving.

Jeff Opperman is a senior freshwater scientist at The Nature Conservancy, where he focuses on improving the environmental sustainability of hydropower.

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