Oregon Outdoors: Hot winter for steelhead

Oregon Outdoors Winter Steelhead (Mail Tribune)

Fishing guide Brady Rogers likes the dependability of summer steelhead fishing while in shorts on the upper Rogue River, but that pales in comparison to what comes with the new year’s first storms.

When the air gets cold and the water levels yo-yo, Rogers can’t wait to hit the upper Rogue in search of the early winter steelhead powering past summer steelhead in upper Rogue riffles.

“It’s the thrill of looking for these big, bright, shiny winter fish that you don’t get to catch any time of the year,” Rogers says.

“There’s nothing like that thrill you get when you’re out looking for winter steelhead this time of year,” he says.

Normally, that thrill doesn’t begin until mid-February, but this year Rogers and others saw a January to remember — with perhaps the best early winter steelhead showing in decades — and data show this is likely.

January returns of winter steelhead to Cole Rivers Hatchery are the highest in 35 years.

“We’ve been getting a winter (steelhead) or two a day up here,” says Rogers, of Shady Cove. “Some days are tougher than others. But they’re definitely here early.”

02_12 winter steelhead ALL

Cole Rivers return numbers don’t tell the whole story for what’s happening with Rogue winter steelhead. The run is dominated by wild steelhead, and most of those return to tributaries in the Grants Pass and Galice areas, including the Applegate River Basin. The Applegate also is home to close to half of the hatchery winter steelhead in the system in any given year.

But with 2010’s removal of Gold Ray Dam and its fish-counting ladder, Cole Rivers counts are all that’s left to gauge the relative strength of the upper Rogue’s early returns — and those couldn’t be more positive.

The 233 adult winter steelhead that reached the hatchery by Jan. 30 were the most since at least 1984, with 2012’s 152 adults second, records show. Last year the count was one; many years, such as 2010 and 2013, were zero; and the 10-year running average is 29 adult winter steelhead by that time.

Early returns to the hatchery also don’t tell the whole story about hatchery winter steelhead in any given year.

When they fail to show up early, it doesn’t mean they won’t show up, records show.

The 2012 hatchery return, for instance, ended up at 2,480 winter steelhead to Cole Rivers. But the three best early returns in the past decade also came during the three highest returns in that time frame, statistics show.

“So far so good,” says Dan Van Dyke, Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife Rogue District fish biologist. “It’s exciting to see, but it’s early.”

Though summer and winter steelhead are entering Cole Rivers at the same time, they’re fairly easy to tell apart, hatchery Manager Dave Pease says.

“It’s the squeeze test,” Pease says. “At this time, summer steelhead are kind of squishy, while winter steelhead are real firm.”

Summer steelhead and winter steelhead share the Rogue River in late January and early February and overlap in the upper Rogue.

While upper Rogue anglers often use the exact same baits, lures and flies to catch these steelhead, fishing for summer steelhead and winter steelhead can be as different as the seasons.

For starters, most summer steelhead fishing is done in July through September, when anglers can expect sunburns, sweat and likely even smoke from wildfires. Winter steelheading is associated with some of the coldest days on the river, including this past week’s below-freezing temperatures.

Summer steelhead fishing is always best at dawn and dusk, when the fish are at their most active, but when it comes to biting, winter steelhead follow bankers’ hours.

During the bulk of the summer steelhead season, flows on the Rogue are regulated and generally uniform based on a set flow regimen for releases into the river from Lost Creek Lake. During winter steelhead season, tributary runoff during and after storms can cause vast fluctuations in river flows, with anglers focusing on dropping water conditions because that’s when steelhead migrate and bite the best.

Upper Rogue temperatures during the bulk of the summer steelhead season are in the mid-50s or higher, with steelhead more likely to hover in the faster waters at the heads and tailouts of runs where oxygen mix in the water is better.

Winter water is in lower 40s, so the steelheads’ quest for oxygen is much less pressing.

Also, the rules for upper Rogue angling differ for each run.

During the summer steelhead season, all wild steelhead must be released unharmed, and fishing is flies-only during September and October, when summer steelhead are focused on eating loose eggs from spawning spring chinook salmon. Also, November and December rules ban bait but allow lures from the Shady Cove boat ramp to Fishers Ferry boat ramp near where Gold Ray Dam once spanned the Rogue.

Bait is allowed beginning Jan. 1 river-wide, and anglers can keep up to one wild winter steelhead a day, and three per year, beginning Feb. 1, provided the wild steelhead is at least 24 inches long.

The demarcation line is for periods like now, when summer and winter steelhead are both present. Nearly all winter steelhead eclipse 24 inches, while the vast majority of summer steelhead do not.

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