Talking trout, a slippery subject

As the most common fish species in Oregon, trout have historically thrived in the southern Willamette Valley and many other Oregon regions. Both cutthroat and rainbow trout are indigenous to Oregon and you will find native populations of both “cuts and bows” in every stream and river that drains all our great cascade watersheds.

In our coastal rivers, cutthroat trout populate about every river that seasonally also has runs of steelhead and salmon, and people sometimes catch them while fishing for other species. Of the two, cutthroats are somewhat more resilient and generally populate river habitats that would be marginal for rainbows. In coastal rivers, they are always on the move. They travel upriver on high flows and drop back into the lower river and upper estuary when river flows diminish, in cascade rivers like the McKenzie River, where rainbows dominate the upper reaches of the river. But at about Hayden Bridge that dominance begins to fade and the cutthroats become far more numerous and populate the balance of the McKenzie/Willamette drainage to about Corvallis. It is a pattern that you can pretty much apply to most of the west slopes, rivers, and streams of the Cascade Mountains. 

A little more about Cutthroats: On the west slope of the coast mountains, some cutthroat trout have evolved to spend a larger portion of their lives in the brackish waters of our coastal estuaries and some even venture out into the ocean to feed. Referred to as “sea-run cutthroats,” they thrive on the tiny crabs and other bay creatures. They emerge from the mud and suspend in the bay water until washed out to sea by the tides and the fish follow the feed. The environment is rich, allowing the adventurous sea-run cutthroats to grow to sizes that eclipse the growth rates of their land-lock cutthroat brothers. Often reaching a sizable two pounds or more …

Because it has the largest range of any other trout in Oregon, we cannot overlook the hearty “red-banded high-desert rainbow” that populates many of the tiny streams and creeks of Oregon’s eastern plateau. It is an ancient fish, possibly a species whose heritage dates back to a time when the eastern plateau was part of a massive inland sea. The hardest of rainbow trout, the red-banded high-desert trout also lives in some of the harshest parts of Oregon. Where the temperature ranges from minus-zero degrees in the winter, often breaking the century mark on many summer days. Red-banded trout also dominate the upper McKenzie River and are believed to be the genetic remnants of the high-desert rainbow that swam in the McKenzie River at a time when drainage likely reached much farther east. It is difficult to place an exact time in the history of the world when trout first appeared in our rivers. But scientists do generally refer to the trout as a “prehistoric fish.”

Trout fishing for “wild trout” (both cuts & bows) is managed in a variety of ways in Oregon that range from strict catch-and-release to requirements to other regulations that allow for a modest daily retention. Unfortunately, it has become difficult to generalize about the regulations in any region of Oregon. So before you head out to fish on a wild trout fishery, make sure you check the regulations before you cast anything out into the water.

It was in 1870 that the developing science fisheries management began to propagate rainbow trout, to supplement wild trout populations and also to plant trout into places that nature had overlooked. Every year the ODFW produces over 40 million rainbow trout that are planted in both rivers and lakes across our great state. In my next column for The Chronicle and leading up to the Memorial Day weekend I will highlight locations to trout-fish “both near and wide.”

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