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Washington state fish exemplifies Northwest beauty

Shelton-Mason County Journal of Shelton, Washington

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In 1969, the Washington Legislature designated steelhead as our state fish, and it isn't hard to understand why they made that decision. Few fish better exemplify the wildness and natural beauty of the Pacific Northwest. Even fewer can equal the fight and determination of a steelhead hooked.

Steelhead are genetically identical to rainbow trout, sharing the scientific name Onchorynchus mykiss with them. The main difference between the two — and it is a big one — is the fact that steelhead will migrate to the ocean one or two years after they emerge from a gravel nest in their birth river.

While in the ocean, steelhead enjoy a rich diet of squid, fish and shrimp, following the ocean's currents on a journey that can take some of them thousands of miles away from their home stream.

During this time of plenty, steelhead turn a bright, shimmering silver that leads many anglers to nickname them "chromers." The flash of a fresh-from-the-ocean steelhead fighting at the end of your line is exhilarating and breathtaking.

After a year or two spent at sea, steelhead turn toward the rivers of their birth to make their spawning run. The largest and most powerful fish return in the coldest, darkest months of the year, as if to emphasize the hardships they've gone through by making anglers brave cold and wet and dark in order to catch them. They range in size from five pounds to trophies reaching 20 pounds and more. Regardless of their size, they will give most anglers a fight to remember.

For the South Sound angler looking to have their own encounter with Washington's state fish, the nearby Satsop and Wynoochee rivers are a good bet.

Both rivers provide a wealth of fishing opportunities for bank and boat anglers alike, and water that can be effectively fished with a variety of methods. Probably the greatest chance at hooking one of these iconic fish is with a jig or bait drifted beneath a float.

For the angler who is up for a bit more of a challenge, swinging a fly with a spey rod provides a unique experience. You will hook fewer fish this way, but those fish that do take the fly will be aggressive and hard -fighting.

Regardless of your chosen method, if you are fortunate enough to hook a wild steelhead take a moment to appreciate its beauty and strength. Look closely at the gunmetal gray of its back, and the clear silver of its sides. Examine the strong, wide tail, and the taper of the body that is perfectly adapted to swimming against the strong currents of Pacific Northwest rivers.

Whether it is a hatchery fish destined for the dinner table, or a wild steelhead that will be released, remember: You aren't just holding a fish in your hands, but an iconic symbol of our state, a fish that in its beauty, strength and perseverance reminds us why we choose to call this place home.

Jason Rolfe is a fishing guide and writer who grew up in the south Puget Sound. He can be reached at jleerolfe©

Copyright 2016 Shelton-Mason County Journal, Shelton, Washington. All Rights Reserved. This content, including derivations, may not be stored or distributed in any manner, disseminated, published, broadcast, rewritten or reproduced without express, written consent from SmallTownPapers, Inc.

Original Publication Date: January 14, 2016

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