Oh-my-kiss, that is how the fisheries biologists refer to them. No, it isn’t an affectionate term for a loved one, but short hand for Oncorhynchus mykiss, also known as the steelhead trout. The silvery steelhead is one of the most remarkable animals on the planet.
They are a unique form of rainbow trout that are anadromous. Like their pink fleshed cousin, the salmon, this species spawn and live in freshwater streams as rainbow trout but a portion of the population gets a wild hair and heads out to sea once mature, only to return to their natal freshwater stream to breed. During the transition from fresh water to salt water and vice versa, these species undergo incredible physiological changes including bulking up and shifting colors. Unlike salmon, who swim upstream once in their lives to lay eggs before dying, steelhead repeat this 50-mile roundtrip swim to The Preserve year after year. This strategy is not that of a rebellious teenager, instead it is a survival strategy for the species. Having a flexible lifestyle has allowed steelhead to adapt to changing conditions along the coast including droughts and shifts in food supply.
Despite a millennia of adapting to the world around them, Central California Coast steelhead populations are in decline and were listed as threatened in 1997. What they need to survive is healthy streams with reliable perennial water.
On The Preserve we have no fewer than six vibrant streams, each wending its way across 20,000 acres: San Jose Creek, Garzas Creek, Potrero Creek, San Clemente Creek, Robinson Canyon Creek and the upper reaches of Hitchcock Creek. Each of these streams are considered “steelhead bearing” which means when the streams are flowing at high levels steelhead come in from the ocean to breed each winter, contributing to the genetic diversity and overall abundance of the local population.
Having six healthy streams in our community is no accident. In the early planning phase of The Preserve, streams and surrounding riparian plant communities were identified as priorities to protect. Detailed biological surveys were conducted, wells, roads and Homelands were placed in locations that safeguarded the streams. The annual erosion of bare dirt from historic ranch roads was even ceased by allowing grass to seed the trail beds and portions of the old roads to retire and recede back into nature.
Each of these decisions, and the thoughtful and ongoing land management practices employed by the Conservancy, Ranch Club and Community Services District, help keep our streams running clear and full. These decisions also, literally, flow downstream. Our actions at the top of the watershed wind their way all the way down the creeks until they meet the Carmel River and eventually, flow into the Pacific Ocean.
Preventing erosion on The Preserve keeps silt out of the Carmel River. Supporting healthy forests on The Preserve helps clean the water as it flows downhill. Managing invasive weeds at the top of the watershed reduces their spread downstream. Preparing for wildfire on the slopes above the creeks protects the plants and soils that slowly release the winter rains and feed the creeks all spring long. Each protection and each management decision we make plays out along the reaches of our six creeks.
As with so many of our special species on the property, the mighty steelhead vote with their presence, indicating that they approve of our choices and want to come back year after year to breed in our permanently protected creeks. So, next time you are along one of our creeks and lucky enough to catch a sliver flash of a steelhead or rainbow trout, go ahead and blow a kiss to the little O. mykiss!
BY CHRISTY WYCKOFF