As chinook run slows, steelhead action strong

Memorial Day has always marked the beginning of the summer season. But it’s important not to overlook the significance of the Memorial Day observance and what it means to Americans. The day was set aside in the late 1800s, originally called “Declaration Day” to honor Civil War veterans. Then it became a federal holiday in the 1970s. Now, it’s in observance of not only the veterans who served but also to the families that gave their loved ones in defense of the values and freedoms that are so uniquely American. 

One of my jobs here at The Chronicle is to keep my fingers on the pulse of tourism in Oregon and I often weave those trends into my column. I can tell you that the summer of 2024 will be the most traveled summer in recent history. So as you freely travel across our “fruited plains,” or encounter other Americans engaged in enjoying their freedoms, before you freely cast that lure onto one of our pristine waterways, take a moment to honor our veterans and to pay homage to the families of the fallen. 


About 7,000 spring chinook had already made their way past the Willamette Falls at Oregon City a week ago. Which is good news – the timing is very consistent with previous seasons.  But earlier this year, at a gathering of local river guides, the ODFW did speculate that this season’s spring chinook run might be more in line with what we saw last year. While we had good numbers of wild chinook that you have to release into the system, we were light on hatchery chinook returning to the McKenzie in particular. 

Decisions looming

The shortage prompted the ODFW to close a portion of the river below Leaburg Dam to all salmon fishing, so what we see in the next two to three weeks will be critical. The chinook migration is bouncing along at about 250 fish per day. 

Hopefully we’ll see those numbers jump up into the high hundreds – possibly to a thousand or more per day – and really “fire up.” It’s yet to be determined how many hatchery salmon will be available, so for fish you can retain, it’s a wait-and-see. 

Just to remind my readers, the speculation stems back to the Holiday Farm Fire when the ODFW were forced to dump thousands of spring chinook smolts into the river well in advance of their maturity. What we’re seeing right now is the result of their unfortunately low survival rate in the wild – they were just too small and young. Hopefully this will be the last year of the possible shortfall and in 2025 we’ll see those numbers return to predictable historical averages. 

Some very good news for the upper Willamette is that about 9,000 winter steelhead had preceded the spring chinook run and are now well-distributed into the tributaries. Although the pressure on these fish has been very light, I am aware of a handful that were caught in early May at the mouth of Fall Creek on the Willamette River by anglers in the know. 

This is good news on several levels, an ample winter run of steelhead often tails off into the head of a quality summer steelhead run. Which, with fingers crossed, looks to be the case this season. 

Close to 6,000 summer steelhead have already made their way past the Willamette Falls at Oregon City. Heading to the upper Willamette tributaries including the McKenzie below Leaburg and to the Middle Fork of the Willamette below Dexter Dam and a few of those fish have already been landed. 

Summer steelhead

Unlike the Chinook run that tails out in July, the summer steelhead run is somewhat more dynamic and will likely continue through a good portion of the summer, slowing down a bit in July and August.

Then typically in September we see another small push of “late summer steelhead.” Nowhere near the size of the spring push, generally 1,500 to 2,000 steelhead, but it will keep the fishery on our local river viable well into the end of the year. 

Questions remain about the future of summer steelhead in the upper Willamette Basin. But for this season, things are shaping up to a season we haven’t seen in a number of years. 

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