Oregon steelhead production remains consistent

Reports of winter steelhead finding their way home to Oregon’s coastal rivers have been modest although somewhat persistent throughout the length of the far western part of our state. In part one of a two-part series I will give you a general overview of all the winter steelhead possibilities on the top steelhead rivers from the lower Columbia River south to the Siuslaw River. In part two, I’ll break down the rivers south to the California Border. Sandwiched in between, in my next column for The Chronicle, I will bring you an exclusive interview with Jeff Ziller, the managing biologist for the southern Willamette district of the Oregon Department of Wildlife. On the expectation that the EWEB Board of Directors will soon vote to make charges to the Leaburg hydroelectric project – including  completely removing Leaburg Dam. Concerns that the operation of Leaburg Hatchery could be suspended, that hatchery salmon and steelhead would no longer be released in the McKenzie, that the McKenzie will become a wild fish, catch and release river only … and other rumors have circulated in the fishing and guide communities, and with Ziller’s help, I will do my best to separate fact from fiction. That comes up in two weeks.

Considering all the opportunities and the quality of our fisheries, there is little doubt Oregon remains one of the top producers of Pacific steelhead in the country. With the new year and consistent with historical records. The rivers and streams of the lower Columbia River and the far north Oregon coast now have good numbers of ocean bright steelhead, spread throughout their watersheds. A few fish showed up just after Thanksgiving, the run continued to build into December and just before Christmas really took off. On the Lower Columbia, both with hatcheries, Big Creek and Klaskanine River have been the most productive, followed by Gnat Creek. Working down the coast a short way, also with hatchery runs and good fishing reports are the Necanicum and Nehalem Rivers. Both rivers, among the state’s top steelhead stream, have some of the most abundant early run of winter fish and there too the run is well underway. The peak of the lower Columbia and north coast run is still a few weeks away, generally in late January, but will often fish into March.

Rounding out the north coast inventory of steelhead, rivers and streams would be the waterways of the Tillamook Bay. The best of the bay hands down are the Wilson and the Trask. Which individually and in aggregate, arguably are part the most productive coastal steelhead region in our state. Both rivers have plenty of wild steelhead and broodstock steelhead that are planted by the thousands in both rivers. On the Wilson River, all the hatchery steelhead are broodstock steelhead raised at the region’s all-volunteer Whiskey Creek Hatchery. On the Trask, from a state hatchery, in addition to wild and broodstock steelhead, you will also find conventionally raised hatchery fish too. Reports from the Tillamook Bay streams have not been as good as those just a bit to the north but fishing did pick up just prior to ,. 

Quickly a broodstock steelhead is half wild, the offspring of hatchery and wild parents. That produces a steelhead that has been faring far better at sea than conventionally raised hatchery steelhead. They often grow larger, at times into the upper teens and fish over twenty pounds have become somewhat common. Retaining more of their wild heritage, they also tend to be more aggressive biters than conventionally raised hatchery steelhead and have become highly prized by anglers. It is important to note that the ODFW has been injecting wild fish genetics into their hatchery program for a while, finding that it improves the resilience of their many hatchery products, brood stocking only advances that science. 

It is a bit of a trek to reach the Tillamook Bay or the far north Oregon coast, generally not a reasonable “day trip.” But if you have four or five days to spend fishing and exploring several of Oregon’s most lush watersheds, you will find some great fishing and other rewards that make the effort wonderfully rewarding. I find that lodging in Seaside puts you within a very reasonable distance of all the far north regions’ steelhead rivers. 

In a coastal section I refer to as the “north central coast” are the Nestucca, Siletz and Alsea Rivers. Hatcheries exist on both the Nestucca at Three Rivers and on the North Fork of the Alsea, which is the largest tributary of the main Alsea River. Broodstock and conventionally hatchery steelhead are raised at both hatcheries for release directly in their hosting rivers. On the Siletz is one of the more prolific broodstock programs on that section of the coast. Again utilizing volunteers, wild steelhead captured by hook and line are placed into a nearby holding tank, and are subsequently transferred to the Alsea Hatchery to be spawned with a hatchery steelhead and raised in the hatchery up to the smolt stage. The offspring are released later that season back into the Siletz. Conventionally raised hatchery steelhead are also planted in the Siletz and the river is well known for its late-season wild steelhead fishery.

Continuing south, you encounter a handful of wild steelhead gems. A series of small rivers and streams that meet the Pacific Ocean just north and south of Cape Perpetua; they include the Yachats River, Big Creek, Tenmile Creek and Cape Creek. Admittedly not for everyone, these are challenging streams to fish but if you don’t mind bushwhacking your way along the creek in solitude, with only the sounds of nature surrounding you. They are a steelheader’s Valhalla.

The Siuslaw River is Lane County’s only major winter steelhead river but in terms of steelhead habitat is one of the poorest on the coast. It is just a fact of Mother Nature that when she designed the Siuslaw River she made its river bed better suited to spawn coho and chinook salmon than steelhead. Although she did not totally forsake steelhead, several of the Siuslaw’s tributaries, including Lake Creek – the Siuslaw’s largest tributary have decent amounts of steelhead gravels and some wild production. The main river is not so well-gifted. I spoke to the management issues because of coho salmon still being listed as a threatened species in recent articles. I won’t rehash those details but the results are that steelhead released into the Siuslaw River are all conventionally raised and set free from a single location at Whittaker Creek. At press time only a single steelhead had reached the accumulation trap at the confluence of the Siuslaw River and Whittaker Creek. Lastly, this week will also see the return of an “atmospheric river,” rivers will rise, conditions will be in flux. But when the waters recede all our coastal rivers should glisten with chrome. … Stay tuned.

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