by Derek Hockenbrough

I had met Shane Anderson at Darryl Hannah’s ranch in Telluride, Colorado three years before the following interview. A group of passionate filmmakers, legendary adventurers and aspiring twenty-somethings (I was part of the latter) made up the bulk of the group. And then there was Shane. It seemed like someone had cut out a picture from a Cabela’s catalogue, imbued it with life and tossed the newly formed being into the assemblage. Bounding from the llama pen to the coal-powered hot tub and back to the circle, roasting hot dogs over a small fire, Shane was certainly the life of the party. With a guitar in hand, he cooed out familiar tunes in an almost ethereal manner.

As we sat in the lounge of the Camel’s Garden Hotel back in Telluride after three years, I couldn’t help notice that he was still larger than life and salt of the earth at the same time. However, something had changed.

He had a methodical calmness to him and a certain hawk-like focus in his eyes. The Steelhead Trout, what had always been a totem-like animal for Shane, had reached into his heart and shared its plight. Shane would never be the same.

Born On The River

Shane grew up along the banks of the Washougal River in Washington State with endless ancient forests and the majestic Olympic Peninsula in his backyard; what he calls “one of the most raw, untouched pieces of land with pristine nature and wildlife left.” He spent his early childhood chasing fish through the clear banks of the Washougal and hearing stories about the mysterious Steelhead Trout from his uncle, a legendary fly-fishing rod creator named Kerry Burkheimer.

Young Shane became intrigued with fishing almost to the point of obsession, battling and hauling in hundreds of Rainbow Trout. It wasn’t until the age of 14 that he caught his first Steelhead. And, like so many before him, the Steelhead cast its piscine spell on him and he was transfixed.

Photo by Dave Norehad & John McMillan / Shane Anderson

Photo by Dave Norehad & John McMillan / Shane Anderson

Shane spent his formative years as a professional skier, making films and playing music, but he always returned to the rivers where his soul awaited. Fishing gives him time to meditate, to quiet down his ever-rushing thoughts; like water calming in a pool before launching back into the rapids of his cranial river. The Steelhead never swam far from his mind. He returned to school at Humbolt State University in Northern California to study fisheries biology and Salmonids, the family of fish of which the Steelhead is an enigmatic member.

Meet the Steelheads

What makes the Steelhead such a prized creature to so many people? There are many answers to this question. First off, the Steelhead remains somewhat shrouded in mystery. In reality, the Steelhead is actually a Rainbow Trout, however it is differentiated by its ocean migration behaviors. “Half of its life no one really knows where it goes,” Shane muses. Many Steelheads travel to the Aleutian Islands in the Northern Pacific Rim. It’s thought that they follow squid migrations, which is like a prime cut steak for the fish. However, more than a couple tagged Steelheads have wound their ways through rivers in Western Washington all the way to Japan where they are picked up by commercial fishing vessels. Unlike other Rainbow Trout, Steelhead is a kind of “lone wolf” tending to prefer the lonely road as opposed to traveling in schools.

Perhaps people are drawn to them by their seeming likeness to humans. It has been recently discovered that most, if not all, ocean-run Salmonids travel along the electro-current signature of the ocean, enabling them to find the rivers of their birth. After two to three years at sea, Steelhead will follow the electro-current to the mouths of their home rivers where powerful olfactory glands in their noses will key in on the scent that takes them to their origin spawning. Back home, they pair up and mate. Many Steelhead return to within ten feet of their birthing place, some within the same foot. The males should be heroes for less physically gifted men. John McMillan, a trout researcher appearing in Shane’s documentary “Wild Reverence,” has recorded 10-inch “resident” males mating with 20lb females, which is like the school nerd bagging the prom queen.

Decline of the Wild

Back at school, Shane began to pour over scientific papers written about the Steelhead. He had fished for the Steelhead his entire life, but this was the first time that Shane had actually studied the fish. He didn’t like what he found. The wild Steelhead is in rapid decline, 11 of the 15 regions in the west, from California to Washington, already have them listed under the Endangered Species Protection Act. Only three strongholds remain: Northern California, the Oregon Coast and his beloved Olympic Peninsula. Even there, things are not looking good. Hatchery fish are still being introduced, anglers are allowed to kill wild Steelhead and habitat destruction permeates those areas. “Since I have seen the decrease in my lifetime, it really hit home to me,” Shane laments, “When I returned to some of the rivers where I grew up, there were no fish left. I start off the documentary fishing in those rivers and it took me fifty days to catch a fish. During the last hour of light on the last day of the fishing season, I finally caught a Steelhead. Whereas when I went to the rivers in Northern California where the runs are still ok, I was catching ten fish a day.”

Weary of the regurgitated “old science” that Shane was presented with at school, he decided to drop out and start a journey to discover, from the scientists in the front lines, exactly what was happening to his beloved fish. Wanting to share his discoveries with the world, he began filming his adventures. This led to the creation of his upcoming documentary, “Wild Reverence.”

There are three main reasons leading to the decline: Habitat, Harvest and Hatcheries. Habitat destruction is an epidemic that corrodes all areas of the wilder- ness. Each region presents its own specific problems. In Oregon the lax logging laws have allowed for massive forest destruction. Some areas allow logging companies, he cites Plumb River Logging, to chop down trees right up to the riverbanks. “It’s not staggered like many forestry systems dictate. They’ve bought thousands of acres that will be completely cleared within ten years. They’re just butchering it,” he says. In Northern California, the rivers are victims of the “water wars.” Shane speaks of the Eel River with most of its water being diverted to marijuana farms and vineyards. The water is quickly depleting and the small amount that remains rises to temperatures in the summer that are lethal for the fish.

In Washington, harvesting is more of a problem than habitat. While it is illegal for any non-tribal organizations to commercially harvest Steelhead, the tribes are bringing in heavy numbers with nets. Anglers are not forced into catch-and-release fishing but are allowed to kill the wild fish. The numbers might not seem sufficiently dangerous, but the exhaustion of wild Steelhead brings catastrophic consequences to all areas of nature. “The Steelhead is a keystone indicator species,” he states, “They affect around 137 other species. They need the same things we do: clean water, abundant food and safe shelter in which to breed and live.”

The most disastrous practice to the Wild Steelhead is the profuse existence of hatcheries. This archaic practice takes us back to the New Deal of the 1920s when dozens of dams were built on the rivers. Many dams did not contain fishways, which cut off many spawning beds upriver and block the fish from their natural migration routes. A law was drafted that forced dams to have fishways unless they created a hatchery for the river. Of course, this bylaw was attractive to construction teams that wanted to escape expensive re-construction to the dams. “From the Gold Rush to the end of the dam building of the 1920s, nearly 90 percent of the population was wiped out,” says Shane.

However, simple evasion of construction expenses is not the only reason for the existence of hatcheries. The government subsidizes them with billions of dollars funded by U.S. taxpayers. States are more than willing to accept the checks, because a major industry for them lies in the sales of fishing licenses. In a typically ignorant logic thread, states think that more fish equals more recreation equals more sales. However, forty years of statistics belie the darker truth: Shane cites that there are 52 reports clearly showing that as more hatchery fish are introduced, the overall population perpetually de- clines. Even the number of hatchery fish returning from their ocean migrations has dramatically fallen.

Lets look at the numbers. One Hatchery Smolt (a juvenile fish) equals roughly one tax dollar when initially released. Due to the dropping number of returning fish, when you compare the large amount of Smolts released to the small amount that return from their migrations it equals about $2,000 worth of already-paid tax dollars per fish. That’s roughly $1,999 of taxes that are virtually thrown downriver to disappear. At the Central Washington Hatchery, on the Entiat River, Spring Chinook Salmon is returning to a loss of nearly $70,000 per fish. What is the actual value of one fish that is caught and sold? $30. 

Photo by Dave Norehad & John McMillan / Shane Anderson Filming

Photo by Dave Norehad & John McMillan / Shane Anderson Filming

“If it was a business, it would have been bankrupt decades ago. We scramble to pay for social security, healthcare and education, but here we are dumping billions of dollars into a failing system that is hurting the wild fish too. It’s the most backwards thing ever,” Shane growls.

How could the introduction of hatchery fish cause such a calamitous situation? Again, the reasons are varied. Most hatchery fish come from eggs that are used repeatedly; the fish are then raised in concrete ponds where they are fed by hand. Years of non-wild genetics result in Steelhead with smaller brains than Wild Steelhead, half as many senses, and no survival instincts. Hatchery fish are known to rise to the surface of the water, something that wild Steel- head never do. Furthermore, these mentally handicapped fish are mating with the wild Steelhead and blurring the genetics that have allowed them to be one of the most evasive fish in our waters. All of this leads to increased predation from the over-introduced populations. The Steelheads’ main predators include birds and sea lions, which key into the population surges like hyenas in a piglet farm.

Angling With A Camera

Sure, Steelhead is still in our waters. But for how long? Shane talks of the scientific term “Shifting Baseline,” which basically means that subsequent generations can’t possibly understand what it was like to be in the previous. So, each generation accepts the current status quo as normal. “Take a run that historically had 10,000 Steelhead, but this year 5,000 was counted. They think that’s awesome, because they aren’t looking at the real past. It’s what we do as creatures. We’re visual, so we only know what’s in front of us,” he says, “Nothing ever changes until the status quo becomes unbearable, but in this case it will probably be too late for the Steel- head in our rivers.” He pleads that if we just give them a chance, Steelhead will find a way. He tells me of the Paleocene Era when the Puget Sound froze over. The Steelhead migrated into Southern California and when it melted, they went right on back; “They’re smart, but we have to give them a chance.”

They need the same things we do: clean water, abundant food and safe shelter in which to breed and live.

The solutions are palpably obvious to Shane. The harvesting in the north can be better controlled and the hatcheries, all of them, should be shut down. They’re bleeding tax dollars every day on a lose/lose practice. He wants to educate the public on where its tax dollars are being spent and prove that the habitats can, and will, rehabilitate themselves if we just let them. “Will the species become extinct? Probably not. They will probably outlive us. But will they go extinct from our home waters? Yes. If we don’t change, we will lose the fish in our backyard,” he states. Shane does not expect us to save every river. Still, he is fighting to save the wild ones that are left. “Save the wild places that are left so we can go be wild and have that connection. It’s a value thing. Do we value this resource in America; to have these places where we can go fish and our generations can just going to beat it into the ground go to enjoy the outdoors, or are we until they get listed, it shuts down, and the river won’t have any friends anymore?”

Shane did not start out to make a film for fisherman, but for anyone who has ever experienced nature. “I was pretty naïve when I started this journey, but I’ve talked to the head researchers and seen, by the end of the film, the results first hand. I’ve learned so much by the end of the doc. that I hope the audience will learn with me,” he laughs with a slaphappy grin, “Just knowing that the fish are there when you’re hiking by a river… It just makes you hopeful. And when the fish are gone, it opens the river up to more exploitation.”

His future plans include another film that takes a broader look at how man attempts to dominate nature for his own benefits instead of learning the values from it. “The last fifty years shows us how dominating the wild results in only destruction. Show me one example of how its worked,” Shane taunts. There’s so much to learn from each animal’s own species-specific evolution. If we protect these final wild places that are left, we can view them like museum pieces to learn from the plants and animals that we have allowed to survive. I use the term “allowed,” because that is exactly the dominant view that we take from our place at the top of the food chain.

“You don’t have to be a fisherman to appreciate the film. Just know the rivers in your backyard. If you can be a champion for them, know that there is a fish there, observe, and be a voice for you’re the wild in the place that you call home. Then maybe it would help save them and shift the values back to where they should be.” Shane’s documentary, “Wild Reverence,” is in the final stages of completion and can be expected for viewing within the next year.