Steelhead season has been disappointing, perplexing


Tami Armendariz and good friend Phil Strader with a wild Umpqua River steelhead that was caught near Elkton. A “hen,” her body thick with eggs, this beauty was released unharmed to continue her journey home.

If you haven’t caught a winter steelhead from one of Oregon’s coastal rivers this season, you are not alone. What looked like a promising start to the season on the Selitz, Alsea and Siuslaw, dwindled down to a grind for most anglers, as catch rates even on days with good conditions could only be described as “poor to fair.” Because hatchery raised two salt year steelhead returned in very low numbers this winter.

Fisheries biologists will be analyzing the environment in hopes of understanding what happened out in nature because the poor hatchery returns defies their understanding of current ocean conditions. … In what should be the peak of the winter steelhead run, hatchery managers were worried about having enough returning adult hatchery fish to produce the next cycle’s run. That hurdle looks like it has just been cleared … but prospects remain, at best, only fair for anglers wishing to catch a steelhead they can retain.

Unfortunately the poor returns are pretty widespread throughout the Oregon Fish & Wildlife’s Northwest management zone and not specific. The zone extends from the Siuslaw River north to beyond the Wilson River. Closest to the population centers of the Willamette Valley, the northwest zone has historically received the largest supplemental stocking of hatchery steelhead. The rivers in the NW zone are also among the state’s most heavily fished for salmon and steelhead. The low returns are of course a great disappointment to hatchery managers and not specific to any single hatchery. But are equally disappointing to all of us anglers who pay for a license, a tag and hope only for a very modest return on the investment. 

Not all was bad this winter. Although there are far fewer of them, “broodstock steelhead” (the offspring of wild and hatchery steelhead) that you can harvest, were relatively more abundant. Giving a few anglers an epic story of landing a giant steelhead, some of them were upwards of 20 pounds. Also a function of their wild genetics, broodstock steelhead return later in the season and you will find them in the Alsea, Siletz and other north coastal rivers into early April.

A bright spot and exception to the mid and north coast steelhead slump is the Main Umpqua River and its north and south forks. In the Southwest ODFW management zone the South Fork of the Umpqua has wild steelhead, and is managed for both hatchery and broodstock production. The North Umpqua is managed entirely as a wild steelhead sanctuary and is a refuge for some of the purists steelhead genetics in the world. No steelhead are planted in the main river but it serves as a “steelhead highway” for fish heading to the river’s north and south tributaries. Steelheading in the entire system has been “good” this season and will likely be productive through March.

Locally, in late January, with fish from Desert Springs Trout Farm the ODFW, began stocking our local and very popular urban trout fisheries; Junction City pond, Eugene’s Alton Baker Cannel and Row River Nature park all got about 1,000 rainbows last week. That would be in addition to trout already stocked at Alton Baker and Junction City earlier this year. But you may recall that last fall’s terrible fire season destroyed several of Oregon’s key hatcheries. The Minto Hatchery on the North Sanitam near Gates was lost to the Beachie Creek fire. The Rock Creek Hatchery on the North Umpqua fell to the Archie Creek fire. The Klamath Hatchery was damaged by the “Two Four Two fire” and 80,000 brown trout were lost. On the McKenzie, the Leaburg Hatchery staff were forced to early release all the hatchery trout and steelhead smolts they were raising when fire caused a power outage that shut down the water supply to the fish rearing ponds. 

All the calamity has left hatchery staff scrambling to catch up but the good news that has recently emerged is the setbacks are only temporary. The damage has delayed the early stocking of primarily trout into the larger lakes all over the state. The ODFW website has the inventory of delays but it does include all the lakes adjacent to the Willamette Valley. Including Dorenia, Hills Creek, Foster and Detroit reservoirs. The department has made assurances that the public should expect that by the time the fishing season is in full swing, so will be the supplemental plants of hatchery fish to all the usual locations. 

At a McKenzie River Guides Association meeting in early February, Jeff Ziller, the Southern Willamette district managing biologists for the ODFW, reminded us that because the smolts were released six months early and their survival chances were very low, there will likely be no run steelhead run on the McKenzie in 2023. Ziller tempered the message that trout production at Leaburg was in full swing and on track to raise about 36,000 pounds fish or about 76,000 individual rainbow trout this season. At about two fish per pound for release only in to the McKenzie River. The overall volume represents about a 20% reduction for the McKenzies 2021 season which is not bad considering that they had to start from scratch.

A little more Oregon Fish & Wildlife Dept. news; due to COVID-19, in an attempt to reduce crowding at popular fisheries the department took their fish stocking offline last spring. With an improved outlook for 2021, they recently announced that as soon as they can make adjustments for the fire damage, the fish stocking schedule will return to the weekly recreation report on the ODFW website by the end of March.

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