Ron Vanderheiden will never look at Firesteel Creek the same after reeling in a fish he never knew roamed those waters.
When Vanderheiden and his brother went fishing on the shores of Firesteel Creek just a mile east of Mitchell, the local anglers were fishing for walleye. After he felt a nice bite and set the hook, Vanderheiden expected to be reeling in a catfish or walleye. As the fish emerged above the water, Vanderheiden couldn’t believe his eyes when he saw a near 25-inch, 6-pound Chinook salmon was on the hook.
“It fought really well, and it didn’t look like anything else I recognized, so I thought it was a catfish or brown trout,” Vanderheiden said in an interview Wednesday with The Daily Republic. “When I then saw it up close, I couldn’t hardly believe it. I thought, 'How in the world did a salmon like this get here in Firesteel Creek?'”
Using a plastic fishing jig as his bait, Vanderheiden said he was shocked to see the jig attract a king salmon.
As an avid angler, Vanderheiden has experienced catching a king salmon out of Lake Oahe near Pierre. But never in his wildest dreams did he expect to catch a salmon anywhere else in the state, let alone Firesteel Creek. Vanderheiden had the photo of the salmon recently submitted to the South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks Department.
“That was the first time I fished Firesteel Creek in that particular area, and it’s crazy that I end up catching a salmon,” Vanderheiden said.
Todd St. Sauver, area fisheries supervisor with the GF&P, confirmed it’s the first reported Chinook salmon to have been caught out of Firesteel Creek in Davison County, which is a tributary of the James River.
St. Sauver said it’s likely the recent flooding that occurred throughout the state this year played a major factor in the salmon making it to the creek.
“We have been moving a lot of water this year out of South Dakota, and it’s not beyond the realm of feasibility that the Chinook salmon could have made its way out of the Oahe Dam out of Fort Thompson and swam up the James River and into Firesteel Creek,” St. Sauver said in an interview with The Daily Republic. “When you have a lot of water moving, these fish can move long distances.”
The travel pattern the salmon likely swam to reach the creek was quite a journey, St. Sauver said, noting it possibly had to make it through all four Missouri River dams.
In 2011, St. Sauver was working in the Dakota Dunes area during a severe flood, and he said several salmon were spotted in the Missouri River and Big Sioux River at that time.
“The fact that it likely made it through four dams without being killed by either the turbines or the trips down spillways is very rare,” St. Sauver said.
Chinook salmon are more commonly referred to as King salmon, and they are anadromous, meaning they are typically born in freshwater creeks and streams but travel to the ocean to grow into adults. Because they prefer cold waters, King salmon commonly inhabit the Alaska area. Although it’s rare for this species of salmon to be found in Firesteel Creek, they have a presence in Lake Oahe, the dammed reservoir along the Missouri River near Pierre.
St. Sauver emphasized how the species of salmon are cold water fish, and while the Oahe Dam helps reduce the stocked Chinook Salmon from being displaced on the Missouri River, it’s possible for them to swim over the dam when water levels are abnormally high.
“That’s why we assume it made the trip in the fall, because water temperatures would have been too warm for it to survive in the summer,” he said.
According to the GF&P’s regulations for anglers who catch Chinook salmon, the daily limit caps off at five, while the possession limit is 10. In addition, there are is no length limit for anglers who catch a Chinook salmon, meaning any Chinook that’s caught in the state is able to be kept, St. Sauver said.
St. Sauver said the salmon Vanderheiden caught was in spawning condition. Due to the spawning, St. Sauver speculated it played a role in the salmon’s travel path into Firesteel Creek.
“It’s possible part of the movement through the waters was due to its natural instinct to go on a spawning run,” St. Sauver said. “Salmon and trout spawn in the fall, and this fish had the obvious hooked jaw of a mature male salmon."
Instead of mounting the historic catch, Vanderheiden enjoyed the salmon over a family dinner.
“We ate it,” Vanderheiden said followed with a laugh. “I’m sure there a lot of disbelievers, because I was (too) when I cranked it in. But it is a salmon.”