FRANK ARMENDARIZ/CHRONICLE PHOTOThe bay fishing season is on, and ocean-fresh salmon float in on every tide. The pressure has been moderate on weekdays and the salmon bite has been fair to good.

Our historic and statewide drought has put a real damper on the angling expectations of a lot of us this summer and there is no amount of lipstick that you can slather over that fact. Making matters worse, forest fire smoke seems to have become a new summertime normal, and the closing of recreational sites due to fire is commonplace. 

Remember, that this year’s drought comes on the heels of several years where much of Oregon saw less than its historic rainfall averages. That lack of precipitation has 70% of streams in Lane County that are monitored by the hydrologists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration critically below their 20-year average. The balances are, in general, the beneficiaries of reservoir releases. With minimum-flow requirements dictated by the Environmental Protection Agency to protect water quality, the river habitats downstream, and the anadromous fish that return to the base of these dams, reservoirs are reaching levels low enough to limit boating and other recreational access. As an example, Detroit Reservoir, the Willamette Valley’s largest impoundment, is down to a single launch, and Mongold State Park has the only boat ramp of several that are still usable. Although the ODFW did add more hatchery trout in preparation for the Labor Day weekend, getting the boat launched this week may require some patience. Other counties, particularly those southeast of us, are in even worse condition.

Our nearby rivers – Middle Fork Willamette, North and South Santiam, Umpqua – are also low, which actually bunches the fish up in predictable river habitats but revivals of a variety of river hazards that you would float over on wetter years. Wear your life jacket and take the time to scout before committing your river boat to a hidden rapid or blocked channel. 

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FRANK ARMENDARIZ/CHRONICLE PHOTOI had a little luck last week aznd tagged a hatchery coho on the lower Umpqua River. The fish grabbed a 360 spinner on a flasher. Don Michael Cambra (aka, DM) of Fishy Water Guide Service was our captain on that day.

Just a fact of the calendar, spring salmon season in the valley is over; it was a fair season. But the valley’s summer steelhead never showed up and “hoot owl” regulations persist, shutting down fishing across most of the state at 2 p.m. For cold water species (trout, steelhead and salmon) the general conditions are not in their favor – a real hit to wild trout and salmon species survival. It limits their potential to produce offspring in the wild. Even if we return to a more normal rainfall pattern this winter, the damage from this year’s historic drought may be with us for several seasons to come.  

The only real exception, right here in our backyard, is the McKenzie River. That is because its unique geology keeps pumping up cold water from deep in the earth, adding to its flow and through all the gloom it remains a shining star of trout fishing.

Trout fishing on the McKenzie is productive, predictable and not subject to hoot owl regulations. Planted above Leaburg with several thousand hatchery trout before Labor Day, the McKenzie below Leaburg will get one more shot of hatchery trout in the week of Sept. 16. Also as the ODFW begins to wind down its trout-stocking program for the season, Leaburg Lake and Alton Baker Canal will get one more shot of trout next week, too. 

This was also a tough season for Oregon’s fisheries managers. Locally, Jeff Ziller, the managing biologist for the southern Willamette district and his Springfield-based crew, were literally forced to start the 2021 trout season from scratch. Last year’s Holiday Farm Fire took out the electrical power to the Leaburg Hatchery, prompting the hatchery crew to flush all the trout broodstock and all the juvenile trout and steelhead in rearing ponds into the river. Or have them die when the electric water pumps that feed the hatchery stopped running. Bringing a fish hatchery back on line from scratch is no small feat. Ziller and the local ODFW crew deserve a big round of applause for stepping up to the challenge.  

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When I wrote my three-part series about bass fishing earlier this year, I had no idea of the drought that would define this summer’s fishing opportunities. But that is what has happened. Warm-water species and fishing for them has been pushed to the forefront of many anglers’ energies and social media is filled with those stories. I also spent more time bass fishing this season than just about any time in my life and shared some of those stories and photos in my recent columns. On lakes and rivers, I caught bass on an incredible variety of lures and tackle types, and can only describe the several days I spent “fly fishing” for bass on the Umpqua River near Elkton this season, as “magical.” The bass bite in western Oregon should hold up into late October.

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I recently had plans of fall salmon fishing on the ocean out of Salmon Harbor at Winchester on the lower Umpqua, but Mother Nature said “nope” and river bar restrictions forced our party to stay within the confines of the bay, where the catching was a little slow in late August but picked up considerably into September. So did the fishing pressure but I won’t describe the numbers of hopeful anglers as excessive. It’s a two-fish limit, only one of which can be a wild salmon. 

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