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Salmon and Other Fish

Salmon and Other Fish

Steelhead Trout in the Deschutes Basin

Steelhead (Oncorhynchus mykiss) are the larger, ocean-going cousins of redband trout. This species has a speckled, dark-olive body with a silvery-white underside and a reddish side stripe. Because they spend part of their lives feeding in the ocean, they grow larger than redband trout, growing up to 45 inches and 55 pounds.

Adult steelhead typically return to the Deschutes River from the Pacific Ocean in June, and by October, they can be found throughout the lower Deschutes Basin where they spend several months before spawning in late winter and early spring. Unlike other salmon species, steelhead can reproduce several times before dying. The young fish, called alevins, emerge from their eggs in May and June and spend one to three years in fresh water before migrating to the ocean. Fish such as steelhead that migrate between fresh and salt water are called anadromous.

Historically anadromous, steelhead spawned in much of the Deschutes watershed. But dams and irrigation withdrawals began to limit their distribution. In the 1960s, the construction of the Pelton-Round Butte Hydropower Complex blocked the fishes passage into the upper two-thirds of the basin. Fish ladders allowed mature fish to move upstream, but young fish were trapped above Lake Billy Chinook, a large reservoir on the middle Deschutes, and could not return to the ocean.

In 1968, Portland General Electric abandoned efforts to maintain a natural population of anadromous fish in the reservoir. Instead, the company constructed the Round Butte Fish Hatchery to supplement the area with hatchling steelhead and Chinook salmon. Most anadromous steelhead in the lower river now come from Round Butte Hatchery and other hatcheries outside of the Deschutes Basin. Fishermen can identify hatchery fish because they lack their adipose fin, which is clipped at the hatchery for this purpose. All wild fish, those with adipose fins, must be released.

Wild steelhead do spawn in the lower Deschutes mainstem and its tributaries. These fish are part of the Middle Columbia River Steelhead population. This particular population is declining, and therefore is listed as "threatened" by the National Marine Fisheries Service.

In 2004, an ambitious effort began to restore anadromous steelhead to the upper Deschutes Basin. As part of federal relicensing requirements for the Pelton-Round Butte hydropower complex, the dams owners agreed to build a multi-million dollar fish passage facility that will move young fish downstream. As part of this effort, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife began releasing thousands of young steelhead into the upper Deschutes basin. Dozens of citizen groups and government agencies have joined in the restoration effort (link to feature story) in the hopes of returning steelhead to the upper basin.


Good, T.P., R.S. Waples, and P. Adams (editors). 2005. Updated status of federally listed ESUs of West Coast salmon and steelhead. U.S. Dept. Commer., NOAA Tech. Memo. NMFS-NWFSC-66, 598 p.

Northwest Power and Conservation Council Deschutes Subbasin Plan, Appendix I - Fish Focal Species - Overview of history and issues surrounding key fish species in the basin including redband trout and steelhead.

Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW) -- Overview of summer steelhead on the lower Deschutes and ODFW monitoring efforts.

Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW) -- flyer. Steelhead Fishing in Oregon

NOAA. Office of Protected Resources. Steelhead Overview

Authored by Maria Wright, Faculty Research Assistant, Institute for Natural Resources and Caitlin Bell, Staff, Oregon Explorer