Behavior and Movement of Adult Winter Steelhead (Oncorhynchus mykiss) in the Upper Cowlitz River Basin, Washington, 2017–18

Open-File Report 2020-1054
By: , and 


Executive Summary

A 2-year radiotelemetry study was completed to monitor the movements of adult winter steelhead (Oncorhynchus mykiss) in the upper Cowlitz River Basin. A reintroduction program was established to restore healthy and harvestable populations of steelhead because volitional access to the area was blocked in the 1960s after construction of dams in the lower river. A trap-and-haul program is used to move adult steelhead and salmon (Oncorhynchus spp.) upstream, around the dams and large reservoirs, and release them in the upper basin to spawn naturally. Fish are released into Lake Scanewa, the uppermost reservoir in the system, and into the Cowlitz and Cispus Rivers. The goal of this study was to describe the behavior, movement, and tributary use of adult steelhead in the upper Cowlitz River Basin to assist in evaluating the trap-and-haul program and reintroduction program. We were specifically interested in learning more about the locations where steelhead spawn. Individual fish were assigned one of four fates, based on their location during the spawning period: Cowlitz River, Cispus River, Lake Scanewa, or fallback below the dam that impounds the reservoir. A total of 215 steelhead were tagged for the 2017–18 study. Of these, 5 fish regurgitated their transmitters before or shortly after release, so 210 tagged fish were used for analyses, including 121 fish (57.6 percent) released into the Cispus River and 89 fish (42.4 percent) released into Lake Scanewa. The Cowlitz River release site was not evaluated. Hatchery-origin (HOR) and natural-origin (NOR) steelhead were included in the study. Within the first 10 days after release, most steelhead had moved at least 2 river kilometers away from their release site. Fish released into Lake Scanewa, however, moved from their release site significantly sooner than fish released into the Cispus River, regardless of origin or sex. Most radio-tagged steelhead (93–100 percent) made no more than one trip between the reservoir and one of the rivers prior to spawning.

Steelhead were predominantly assigned fates in the river closest to where they were released, but origin also played a role. Steelhead released into the Cispus River were assigned Cispus River fates more than 80 percent of the time, including both origins and both years. About 13 percent of NOR fish had fates in the Cowlitz River, but the proportion was lower for HOR fish (0–2 percent). Fallback was the least common fate for Cispus-released steelhead (three HOR fish in 2017), followed by the reservoir fate, ranging from 5 to 9 percent in 2017, and zero in 2018. The steelhead released into Lake Scanewa were almost exclusively NOR fish, which had primarily Cowlitz River fates (55–57 percent). We released only six HOR steelhead into Lake Scanewa, and they all had Cowlitz River fates. The reservoir fate was uncommon for both release sites, and it was consistently lower in 2018 compared to 2017. Flow conditions were higher in 2017, which may have affected steelhead movement patterns or timing. The three HOR steelhead released in the Cispus River in 2017 were the only fish that fell back over Cowlitz Falls Dam, which represented 1.4 percent of the total study fish, 5.7 percent of the Cispus-released fish in 2017, and 9.4 percent of the Cispus-released HOR fish in 2017.

About 62 percent of the steelhead released in Lake Scanewa spawned in the Cowlitz River, with the remaining 38 percent in the Cispus River. Within the Cowlitz River, close to one-half (about 47 percent) of the fish spawned in the upper reach, and about 16 percent spawned in the lower reach. Steelhead released into Lake Scanewa that spawned in the Cispus River were minimal in reach 5 (4 percent) and distributed in approximately equal proportions in the middle (reach 6; 16 percent) and upper (reach 7; 18 percent) reaches. Steelhead released into the Cispus River spawned almost exclusively in the Cispus River (94 percent). The upper Cispus River reach (reach 7) was used by more fish (72 percent) than the middle Cispus reach (reach 6; 16 percent). Taken together, the upper Cowlitz River reach (reach 4) and upper Cispus River reach (reach 7) accounted for more than 71 percent of the spawning locations for radio-tagged steelhead. When the middle Cispus River reach (reach 6) is included with the upper reaches, they account for 87 percent of our described spawning sites. We described 12 tributaries in the Cowlitz River and 8 tributaries in the Cispus River where steelhead spawned. After spawning, about 53–63 percent of steelhead moved downstream as kelts, either being collected at Cowlitz Falls Dam or being detected downstream from the dam. More fish were collected from both release sites in 2018 compared to 2017. Across release sites and years, more NOR fish and females moved downstream as kelts. This study added to the understanding of the behavior and movement of adult steelhead in the upper Cowlitz River Basin, supporting the findings of previous studies in the basin and describing spawning sites in the system’s two main rivers and their tributaries. Future research efforts in this system may use additional telemetry studies, genetic analyses, and spawning ground surveys to provide further insights into the progress of the reintroduction effort.

Suggested Citation

Liedtke, T.L., Kock, T.J., Hansen, A.C., Ekstrom, B.K., and Tomka, R.G., 2020, Behavior and movement of adult winter steelhead (Oncorhynchus mykiss) in the upper Cowlitz River Basin, Washington, 2017–18: U.S. Geological Survey Open-File Report 2020–1054, 35 p.,

ISSN: 2331-1258 (online)

Study Area

Table of Contents

  • Acknowledgments
  • Executive Summary
  • Introduction
  • Methods
  • Results
  • Discussion
  • References Cited
  • Appendix 1. Detailed Summary of Spawning Locations of Radio-Tagged Steelhead in the Upper Cowlitz River Basin
Publication type Report
Publication Subtype USGS Numbered Series
Title Behavior and movement of adult winter steelhead (Oncorhynchus mykiss) in the upper Cowlitz River Basin, Washington, 2017–18
Series title Open-File Report
Series number 2020-1054
DOI 10.3133/ofr20201054
Year Published 2020
Language English
Publisher U.S. Geological Survey
Publisher location Reston, VA
Contributing office(s) Western Fisheries Research Center
Description vi, 35 p.
Country United States
State Washington
Other Geospatial Upper Cowlitz River Basin
Online Only (Y/N) Y
Google Analytic Metrics Metrics page
Additional publication details