Winter steelhead running cold


If you put your ear to the wind, listen closely … you will likely hear the sound of winter steelhead fishers slamming the door on what has been a somewhat disappointing winter run, following an exceptional 2022, where we saw better-than-expected abundance.

The 2023 season might be remembered for its exceptional lack of abundance. Particularly when key factors of ample precipitation in January and good ocean conditions appeared to have favored the fish.

Hatchery steelhead returns have been unexplainably meager this season. Looking to last season, by this time of the early new year, in addition to a couple of dozen wild steelhead that I released, I had also tagged half-a-dozen hatchery steelhead that ended up on my grill or in my smoker. 

Some of the shortage is explainable. On the Umpqua River we expected a low hatchery return because of the loss of the Rock Creek Hatchery to the Archie Creek Fire in 2020. The fire destroyed the hatchery and the ODFW estimated about 400,000 fish were lost, including thousands of steelhead.

But we didn’t expect the very low numbers of wild steelhead too. With a run that dominates the river and historically has shown up in the catch statistics at about a rate of four wild steelhead to every one hatchery fish, this season with about 40 angler hours on the water, I have not landed a single hatchery steelhead.

On the Siuslaw, where we have very few wild steelhead, the hatchery runs appear to have sustained some unknown tragedy at sea that by my calculations has resulted in one of the lowest returns in several years.

The Siuslaw River, its largest tributary Lake Creek, and all the other tributaries that exist in the basin, has been biologically assessed to have 100,000 steelhead planted into its waters every season.

Depending on the availability of hatchery stocks, the Siuslaw system regularly receives upwards of 80,000 steelhead smolts that are released into several tributaries throughout the lower basin. The largest portion is released directly into the Siuslaw River at Whitaker Creek, where a collection trap is located to contain the hatchery run to the main river and to accumulate stock for the next season’s hatchery release. 

Sadly, the trap at Whitaker Creek has captured only about 150 returning fish during the peak of the season. 

Broadening the view, there have been rivers up and down the coast that had “a good day,” some even “a fair week,” but the words “consistent and great” have just not been part of this season’s angling lexicon.

Low, clear, and cold water has characterized fishing conditions since late January. A year with low numbers of fish has only added to the challenge of capturing one of the most elusive anadromous species of fish that is difficult to catch even in a good year.

Now, there are five weeks left in the winter steelhead season. Personally and professionally, I’ve had some wonderful steelheading right up to the last day in March. But current conditions have become far too static and we need a significant meteorological event. A big rainstorm that delivers several inches of rain would really help.

Before moving on, I was up on the Siuslaw last weekend – no bites, but I could see steelhead holding in the clear water on a couple of runs. I was fortunate to take several photos and posted them on my Facebook page Sunrise in the Outdoors.

But as soon as the fish realized I was there, they slipped into the shadows and out of sight. And, that speaks directly to the challenge of catching a winter steelhead in the current conditions, particularly in a year with such low numbers of returning fish. 

With far better odds, the ODFW continues to ramp up its trout stocking schedule. Junction City pond, Alton Baker Canal, Walterville Pond, Row River Nature Park, Cottage Grove Reservoir, Dorena Reservoir, Dexter Reservoir and Hills Creek Reservoir have all been recently stocked with numbers of trout ranging from 1,000 to 3,000 fish.

In the coming days, Fall Creek and Blue River reservoirs will also be added to the roster of trout-fishing opportunities. Over on the dune lakes in far western Lane County, the trout stocked there are raised at the Alsea Hatchery on the river’s north fork. The hatchery staff has been busy planting trout that for some locations is the only trout stocking of the year. Those locations include Mercer Lake, Munsel Lake, Woahink Lake, Cleawox Lake and Siltcoos Lake. In general, trout fishing in the coastal lakes is open year-round. Rivers and streams in the region, while open for steelhead fishing, remain closed to trout fishing until the last weekend of May. 

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