The Angler’s Log: It’s already ‘game on’ at a few winter steelhead sites

Winter steelhead, “the gray ghost,” have arrived on north coast rivers. This is just the type of a run that will continue into spring. Tami Armendariz and good friend Phil Strader admire a wild Umpqua steelhead that was safely released. FRANK ARMENDARIZ/PHOTO

For my readers who were expecting a story about inflatable boats, I will get back to that in an upcoming Anglers Log. I will say that people were willing to interrupt their holiday to help me acquire some of the content I needed. But in the spirit of this season of thanks and giving, I believe the time we spend with family and friends has never been more important, and arranged with everyone to reach out after the Thanksgiving week. 

What I do have for you this week are very recent reports that winter steelhead have slipped into a handful of north coast streams and it’s “game on” for one of Oregon’s most popular fisheries. 

Just last week the first of this season’s winter steelhead were reported to have been caught on the Nehalem River and I have confirmed reports that steelhead have reached the traps at the hatchery on the North Fork of the Nehalem, too. 

Steelhead have also now made their way into the Wilson, Necanicum and Nestucca rivers. And most telling to me, a couple of very popular Siletz River guides quietly switched over from salmon fishing to offering steelhead trips just last weekend. Aside from the Alsea, the Siuslaw rivers and the other streams on the central coast, that could use a good shot of rain. River levels on the north coast were in good shape, and even though a little rain was in the forecast, it doesn’t appear that it will be enough to cause conditions to change. 

Early-run steelhead are predominantly hatchery-raised by the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife at one of several state-managed hatcheries located on a handful of coastal rivers. STEP (salmon, trout, enhancement program) volunteers under the guidance of the ODFW also raise steelhead that are supplemental to the state’s hatchery program. In more instances, STEP groups are involved in the actual collection of hatchery steelhead used in hatchery production and manage steelhead traps on rivers all up and down the coast. STEP, by hook and line, also collects all the wild steelhead used in the production of broodstock steelhead. The process is rather elaborate – it involves transferring the captured fish from the river to a temporary holding facility before being transported to a nearby hatchery for spawning and volunteers handle those fish with extreme care. Hatcheries on the Wilson and North Fork of the Nehalem, Nasstuca and Alsea rivers raise steelhead that are released directly into the river that supplies the hatchery water and in some cases are scattered in other nearby drainage. 

Locally, “broodstock steelhead,” the product of a wild parent and a hatchery mate, are also released into the Alsea and Siletz but in far fewer numbers than hatchery steelhead. In the past smolts were essentially released all at one time and for some rivers with hatchery steelhead runs including the Siuslaw that is still the case. On other rivers where possible and “financially feasible”, smolts are released in several smaller batches through the winter season and two years later tend to return to their home river in a similar timeframe. The strategy spreads returning fish throughout a larger part of the winter season and has helped to disperse the number of anglers targeting the early hatchery runs that will peak in February. 

Sadly, there is no broodstock program on the Siuslaw but we do have two active STEP groups doing good work. One a Eugene based club that runs a hatchery on Letz Creek, a Siuslaw River tributary located in the upper drainage. A second group based in Florence runs the trap and weir in the lower drainage at Whitaker Creek, also a tributary of the Siuslaw River where hatchery steelhead are captured before being transported to the Alsea hatchery to spawn. 

On the central coast including the rivers of western Lane County, steelhead released into the Siuslaw, Lake Creek and the Siletz are all raised at the Alsea Hatchery on the Alsea’s north fork. As I mentioned, stock harvested from each individual river, then spawned in the hatchery and imprinted (released) as smolts into the river of their origin. I can tell you that ODFW places a high value on its STEP volunteers and there is a STEP biologist in every field office who works directly with the local groups. Getting involved is easy, Google myodfw.com/step. The STEP groups do wonderful work and it’s also great to learn more about the life cycle of a magnificent fish. 

Wild winter steelhead runs generally fire up in late January, in most Oregon rivers wild steelhead have to be released but no fish fights harder. I shared the details of a wild steelhead trip I had on the Main Umpqua River a couple of winters ago. I also wrote a three-part article for the Chronicle last winter, you will find all those in the newspaper’s archives. 

They will give you plenty of insight on steelhead behaviors, life cycle, catching a steelhead and where to fish for them. I’ll have more on steelheading as the season continues to build. “Game on!”

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