Lake Sonoma Steelhead Festival honors namesake fish and highlights river health

Now that he is 5, Harlan Rhodes of Healdsburg is at the age where he’s both starting to eat salmon and can be quickly captivated by the sudden sight of numerous large fish.

So he stood along a stream northwest of Geyserville on Saturday afternoon while his mother, Lori Rhodes, guided his gaze from left to right.

Suddenly, both of their arms shot out, pointing at a large fish - a steelhead. Harlan’s eyes lit up. And when he noticed a pod of fish further downstream, his demeanor turned more mischievous.

“I know you, mister,” he said, as his mother laughed and another fish splashed.

Although some chinook salmon do return from the sea to spawn at the hatchery at Lake Sonoma, the big fish on display Saturday were steelhead trout - namesake for annual Lake Sonoma Steelhead Festival.

It was the draw for Rhodes, her son and several thousand others who enjoyed a clear February day with live music, archery, arts and crafts, ?food and drink vendors, and plenty of information about fish.

The local steelhead run is at the height of its roughly four-month window, when adult fish raised from eggs at the Don Clausen Hatchery return from the ocean, swimming up the Russian River and Dry Creek.

Returning salmon - including wild and hatchery raised chinook and coho - make similar journeys through the watershed, but their spawning seasons are a bit different.

And unlike salmon, which die after they spawn, steelhead can make several runs into freshwater throughout their lives to breed.

A fish ladder with several steps is one of the last stages for fish returning to spawn at the state hatchery, where staffers measure fish and note their sex. They are then placed in holding ponds before they spawn. Both the fish ladder’s series of waterfalls and the sorting process are popular sights for kids and adults alike at the festival.

The current count of returning hatchery steelhead has been about average, said Danny Garcia, a state fish and wildlife technician. It typically numbers around 3,000 to 4,000. Garcia noted that the rainfall and associated changes in barometric pressure signal the fish to move, and recent weeks haven’t seen the level of rainfall that made 2019 so active for fish.

“Last year was just phenomenal because of all the rain,” Garcia said.

So Saturday’s blue skies may explain why many festivalgoers hoping to see a steelhead muscle its way up the fish ladder were disappointed. The fish that were visible simply swam in place against the current in a shallow stretch just above the ladder.

Still that sight was enough for one young girl, who squeaked and jumped for joy at her first steelhead sighting.

“Mama, fish!” she said.

You can reach Staff Writer Will Schmitt at 707-521-5207 or On Twitter @wsreports.

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