We investigated emigration behavior, habitat use, and Na+,K+-ATPase activity levels of juvenile steelhead trout (sea-run rainbow trout; Oncorhynchus mykiss) in Scott Creek,
a small coastal watershed with a seasonally closed estuary in central California, USA. Migratory fish moved downstream in the spring with elevated Na+,K+-ATPase activity levels. Larger fish (>150 mm) moved downstream during February and March, leaving the stream,
whereas fish moving between April and June were typically smaller and tended to recruit to the estuary. The Na+,K+-ATPase activity levels of estuarine fish varied during the summer as a function of salinity and temperature, but overall levels declined from peak spring
values. Many summer recruits were observed retreating upstream into the watershed when estuarine water quality declined in the fall. Rather than entering the ocean when winter storms reconnected the estuary with the ocean in early winter, many migrated downstream several months later during
subsequent springs. The largest smolts observed (>190 mm fork length (LF)) were primarily those that had reared in the estuary the previous summer. Smolts were observed making a single migration from the upper watershed, but they were smaller (~120–190 mm
LF) with potentially reduced marine survival. In summary, we observed fish moving between freshwater and estuarine habitats seasonally and adjusting their osmoregulatory physiology as needed.
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