Steelhead Namesake: School of Hard Knocks

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Steelhead Namesake: School of Hard Knocks

“Most came to consider the name’s origin to be a description of the blue gun-metal-steel color along the steelhead’s top of head and back. But the real origin was more likely that of ill repute and considered almost a trash fish: less desirable than a Chinook salmon, too bony to can well, flesh not as red, and a head so hard it was difficult to kill.”

Oncorhynchus mykiss came by its name ‘steelhead’ the hard way: the School of Hard Knocks

By Bill McMillan

In 1860, George Suckley published the findings of the fish collections as a naturalist with the Railroad Surveys by the War Department in the latter 1850s. These collections included descriptions of what were then thought to be several different types or species of what we call rainbow/steelhead today as collected in Washington Territory and Oregon. Two of these fit what we call steelhead today as the anadromous life history form of rainbow trout: Salmo gairdneri (common names at the time: spring salmon; and Richardson’s salmon) and Salmo truncatus (common names at time: silvery winter salmon; and square-tailed salmon).

For some reason the probable, more common name that had been applied back to the period of Lewis & Clark’s first descriptions of steelhead — salmon-trout and white salmon-trout — were not included among the common names by Suckley. By the time of the first U.S. Fish Commission reports that included Puget Sound published in 1892 (for the fishery year 1888-1889) the name used for identification of the commercial catch was steelhead or steelhead trout. The name steelhead may go back even somewhat earlier in the U.S. Fish Commission reports dating to early commercial fisheries in California. By the time of the publication of American Food & Game Fishes (Jordan and Evermann 1902) the scientific name was Salmo gairdneri with common names listed as steelhead, steelhead trout, salmon trout, and hardhead. The last name of the group is particularly important — hardhead.

This is where my own family history comes in, and I gather from it that “hardhead” may actually have been the first name applied after the earlier name of salmon-trout, or square-tailed salmon. My father was born in 1904 in Gladstone, Oregon where the Clackamas River joins the Willamette River. He began fishing for spring chinook in the Willamette with particular focus on the area just below Willamette Falls at Oregon City, a few miles upstream of the entry of the Clackamas. This was a Mecca for tribal fishermen far back into pre-history, for Euro-American commercial fishermen dating to mid 1800s, and for sport fishing dating to the very late 1800s. The target species of most esteemed value to all was the spring chinook. However, at that same time of year (Willamette spring chinook making entry from February through April) the winter-run steelhead were also commonly present, although not as numerous in the early years as the spring chinook.


The author’s father, Bill McMillan, Sr., with a steelhead from the Washougal River. McMillan, Sr., literally had a hand in how the steelhead got its name. Circa 1956.


The steelhead in those days was considered inferior for commercial canning purposes because the flesh was paler pink when canned and the reputation for high quality was the spring/summer chinook that when canned commonly used the label, Royal Chinook (noted internationally for its deep red flesh and flavor). Steelhead, until the early 1890s, were not used for canning purposes, for instance, on the Columbia River. This was due to not wanting to diminish the reputation of the canned salmon product. Also steelhead bones are harder than those of the other Pacific salmon and did not soften well in canning. As a result, steelhead (and salmon other than spring/summer chinook) were typically discarded by-catch (wasted). However, when the once great runs of spring/summer chinook became so depleted that the canneries did not have enough fish to can anymore they had to include other species if intensive commercial operations were to be sustained (obviously the problem was over-fishing, but no one wanted to hear that).

It was further noted in the early fishery reports of the latter 1800s that steelhead were voracious predators of salmon eggs. On the Situk River in Alaska, during the 1930s, the cannery there paid bounties for Dolly Varden, steelhead, and rainbow because they were often found among the spawning salmon eating their eggs and eating emergent fry. Salmon were the targeted commercial species of economic value and interest and the trout and char were supposedly depleting them (rather than blame their own operations). The plan was to try to eradicate these salmon egg/fry predators, but by the late 1930s the cannery ran out of money. In one year alone, over 145,000 combined steelhead, Dolly Varden, and rainbow had been killed for bounties on the Situk (methods included dynamite to do so). Steelhead did not recover until the early 1950s (and then more mysteriously crashed again until more recent times). In Washington and Oregon steelhead were also considered as a predator to target in order to reduce their supposed impacts on salmon spawn in the late 1800s.

Steelhead had a bad reputation in the commercial fishing industry.

For somewhat different reasons, but similar mentality, the sport fishermen of the larger rivers noted for spring/summer chinook returns considered steelhead to be an inferior catch — not so inferior to discard, but inferior enough to be somewhat ridiculed in much the same way as Dolly Varden and bull trout came to be considered in those times. My father explained:

“We would fish in boats anchored together in hog-lines below Willamette Falls and the limit was three salmon each, which also included whatever steelhead were caught as part of that limit. The chinook averaged 20 to 25 pounds and the steelhead about 10 pounds. If we caught a steelhead or two we were left with only the prospect for one chinook. Of course, it did not matter that some days we were lucky to get just one steelhead with no salmon at all. That was never considered. The steelhead detracted from the potential to take home 60 to 70 pounds of chinook rather than 30 pounds of steelhead. We all used a ‘billy’ (older term for club) to hit the fish on the head when gaffed into the boats. The chinook, like all the salmon, only took a single whack to kill due to relatively soft head structure. But steelhead often took three or four whacks to kill because of the harder bones. In order to display displeasure with these fish they were always called ‘hardheads’ … a derogatory term due to having to include them in our salmon limit and because they were harder to kill.”

The author with a steelhead circa 1967.


The shift in name from salmon-trout in 1860 to that of steelhead (or hardhead) by at least 1888 is probably due to the increasing industrialization of the commercial fisheries once the canning industry began. This began in 1866 on the Columbia and a few years earlier on the Rogue River when Robert Hume introduced the first canneries on the Pacific Coast. Steelhead were commonly by-catch (waste) and if they were to be used for salt packing or fresh fish markets they required more time to kill when rapped on the head.

It was not until the early 1890s on the Columbia River that steelhead began to be included in the commercial catch data and about that same time steelhead were first becoming targeted with the advent of sport fishing — first in California waters and by about the early 1900s in Washington, Oregon, and British Columbia.

Commercial fishermen began to realize their value with the coming of the railroads to Puget Sound and other areas by the early 1890s. It provided the opportunity to pack steelhead on ice and ship them as far as the Midwest and East Coast before spoilage could occur. Because they were caught in winter, they held up very well when shipped via ice and rail. As a result, commercial fishermen were paid the same for steelhead as for spring/summer chinook — the highest price per pound. Once lowly, they became prime. And by the 1920s and 1930s steelhead were gaining a very different reputation than earlier in history as a superior sport fish.

Subsequently the name “hardhead” completely disappeared. Steelhead was retained, but the reason for the likely origin of the name had by then been forgotten. Most came to consider the name’s origin to be a description of the blue gun-metal-steel color along the steelhead’s top of head and back. But the real origin was more likely that of ill repute and considered almost a trash fish: less desirable than a chinook salmon, too bony to can well, flesh not as red, and a head so hard it was difficult to kill.

My own preferred name for them anymore is “The Ice Travelers” as developed by the scientists studying steelhead in Kamchatka in the 1960s and 1970s. I also like “Mikizha” — the Russian common name for rainbow trout dating back to at least the 1700s and the origin of the present scientific name for the species, Oncorhynchus mykiss (at least in North America and Europe). They were first described at the Kamchatka Peninsula. My fondest memories of steelhead as a part of a little touched natural landscape are from there on a research project with Russian scientists in 1995 and 1996. In Kamchatka the present common name applied to the anadromous life history form, steelhead, is one I do not know how to spell but phonetically is something like “Sumga.” Nevertheless, tainted as “steelhead” has come to be due to all too much reading of history, I still use the term lovingly as the first I came to know for the one animal that came to draw me closest to nature.

Bill McMillan, above, is a fish biologist now retired from Wild Fish Conservancy who still does contract work on the recent Skagit River steelhead studies in Washington state. With many contributions to the steelhead community, McMillan also works with NOAA Fisheries scientists to develop a more accurate historical estimate of salmon and steelhead returns to the Columbia Basin. Along with his son John, he co-authored the recent book, “May the Rivers Never Sleep” (Amato Books, 2012).


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