Get ready! Best steelhead run in years is heading our way

By the end of May 2022, approximately 14,000 spring Chinook had passed over the Willamette Falls at Oregon City, making their way to the hatcheries of their origin that are situated on several of the upper Willamette River tributaries.

It turned out to be a fair run that eventually built to about 40,000 spring salmon. But it was not a good year for summer steelhead; by the end of May 2022 less than 2,000 steelhead had passed the Willamette Falls.  The totality of the run that year was a meager 5,000 steelhead. It wasn’t a good year for me, but I do recall my associates in the guide business and others were slightly more successful.

This year is shaping up somewhat differently; at the end of May only about 9,500 chinook had been counted at the Willamette Falls. I wrote in my last column for The Chronicle about the Chinook smolts lost to the Holiday Farm Fire in 2020 and the possibility of a depressed run again this season. That looks like what we are seeing; of the 9,500 salmon already in the system, only about 6,000 are of hatchery origins. Or in other words, a fin-clipped salmon that you can retain. The balance made up of wild fish that naturally spawned in the river, a thrill to catch but must be released in hopes that the cycle will repeat. 

But there is a silver lining to this season – some would say “chrome.” Our numbers of summer steelhead already passed the Willamette Falls were closing in on nearly 10,000 summer steelhead and at press time the numbers still passing the fall was a robust 150 steelhead per day. 

We haven’t seen this many summer steelhead in the Willamette system since 2018. The final tally was just shy of 10,000 steelhead, which we have surpassed in 2024, as we slip into June.  Unlike salmon that have a short lifespan once they enter fresh water, steelhead will remain in the river often into the next year, providing a full season of a “big game fishing” opportunity.   Before the advent of hatchery-raised summer steelhead in the upper Willamette, the McKenzie, and the Santiam River, once the Chinook run peaked it was limited to hatchery produced and wild trout. Looking back, It hasn’t been since the late 1980s when we had a handful of exceptional steelhead runs – including one year where over 20,000 steelhead passed over the Willamette Falls and became an “incidental by catch” for a lot of people fishing our local rivers for trout. 

The best steelheading in coming weeks will be downstream from Leaburg Dam on the McKenzie, also over on the North Fork of the Willamette below Dexter Reservoir. 

Something else that will work to the advantage of those chasing this year’s already “good” steelhead run is that after two consecutive years of average rainfall and closing in on summer, water conditions are exceptional. Conditions that steelhead find to their liking, stimulates their activity in the river and increases their susceptibility to a variety of baits, lures and flies. Some fish will even revert to activity more frequently seen in their genetic kin – the rainbow trout, often found sipping aquatic insects off the rivers surface. 

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