Skip to main content
U.S. flag

An official website of the United States government

Flow management and fish density regulate salmonid recruitment and adult size in tailwaters across western North America

March 1, 2015

Rainbow and brown trout have been intentionally introduced into tailwaters downriver of dams globally and provide billions of dollars in economic benefits. At the same time, recruitment and maximum length of trout populations in tailwaters often fluctuate erratically, which negatively affects the value of fisheries. Large recruitment events may increase dispersal downriver where other fish species may be a priority (e.g., endangered species). There is an urgent need to understand the drivers of trout population dynamics in tailwaters, in particular the role of flow management. Here, we evaluate how flow, fish density, and other physical factors of the river influence recruitment and mean adult length in tailwaters across western North America using data from 29 dams spanning 1-19 years. Rainbow trout recruitment was negatively correlated with high annual, summer, and spring flow and dam latitude, and positively correlated with high winter flow, sub-adult brown trout catch, and reservoir storage capacity. Brown trout recruitment was negatively correlated with high water velocity and daily fluctuations in flow (i.e., hydropeaking) and positively correlated with adult rainbow trout catch. Among these many drivers, rainbow trout recruitment was primarily correlated with high winter flow combined with low spring flow, whereas brown trout recruitment was most related to high water velocity.

The mean lengths of adult rainbow and brown trout were influenced by similar flow and catch metrics. Length in both species was positively correlated with high annual flow but declined in tailwaters with high daily fluctuations in flow, high catch rates of conspecifics, and when large cohorts recruited to adult size. Whereas brown trout did not respond to the proportion of water allocated between seasons, rainbow trout length increased in rivers that released more water during winter than in spring. Rainbow trout length was primarily related to high catch rates of conspecifics, whereas brown trout length was mainly related to large cohorts recruiting to the adult size class. Species-specific responses to flow management are likely attributable to differences in seasonal timing of key life history events such as spawning, egg hatching, and fry emergence.