Before moving on to an improving steelhead fishing report, at the end of the year there are a couple of housekeeping issues. … 

Don’t forget to update your fishing license this week, and purchase a steelhead and salmon tag. And if you plan to fish for any anadromous fish, in any river that eventually reaches the Columbia River, including the McKenzie and all the forks of the Willamette River, you will also need a Columbia River Endorsement. For power boaters your “Water Way Access Permit” is rolled into your boat’s registration fees. But for boats that are not required to be registered, like drift boats, rafts, canoes and kayaks, etc. over 10 feet in length you will need to purchase a “standalone” Water Way Access Permit. The good news is the permit is issued to the “user,” not the boat, so if you own more than one human-powered craft you only need a single permit but you must carry it with you at all times while boating.

The new year also ushers in the annual wilderness river permit application period for rivers in Oregon and other states that are managed by the Bureau of Land Management.

It administers waterways all over the western states that flow through some of America’s most beautiful and isolated wildernesses. The top four in Oregon are the Owhyee, the John Day, the Deschutes and the Rogue River. On the John Day and Deschutes, public access is limited to a few weeks in spring during the “high season.” For the salmon fly hatch on the Deschutes in May and June, you do need to plan ahead and make reservations. But at all times of the year, high season or not, you still must purchase a permit in advance from the BLM website before launching. To float the Owhyee the entry regulations require you to purchase only a self-issued access permit in advance of your launch date and there are no daily limits on the number of people who can start on any day. On the Deschutes, John Day and Owhyee, your party is limited to 16.

On the Rogue River, permits are issued by lottery – which limits entry into the wild and scenic corridor to 120 people per day from May to October. But you can invite up to 20 of your friends to join you on a single permit. The permit lottery application period is open and runs until the end of January. The winners will be notified by email by Feb. 15. The Rogue River is one of the most sought-after river experiences in the lower 48 – and is truly worth the effort to access one of America’s first rivers granted the historic “wild and scenic” designation.

For the other rivers it’s first-come, first-served during the high seasons and the BLM reservation website goes online Jan. 1. If your river trip is over a weekend or holiday in the spring I strongly encourage you to make those plans as soon as possible.

I’ll add that some people find the permit system cumbersome and an obstacle to spontaneity. But I find the effort worth it and was lucky to be on two Rogue River floats last fall. I’ve made it a number of times and can say that Rogue River Canyon is a magnificent wild wilderness, preserved in time, teeming with fish and other wildlife. 

I also guided and outfitted multiple day-camp trips for trout and steelhead on the Deschutes River for three decades. Back then, I was among several other Deschutes River outfitters that collaborated with the BLM in the development of the permit process that is in place there. We did our best to ensure that access to one of our greatest rivers was guaranteed to the public while preserving the quality of the wilderness experience. And, because of the permit system, those attributes still exist on all four rivers and hopefully will continue for future generations to also enjoy.

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Snow has fallen across most of Oregon and long-range weather modeling showed that snow would change to a rain and snow mix for New Year’s weekend and will likely turn to just rain by next week. The snow is a hassle to some but steelhead streams all up and down the western Oregon coast were in good fishing shape all this last week.

Stepping back just a bit we were already seeing very decent early winter steelhead returns that began just after Thanksgiving and have grown through December in quantity and quality – and now set to exponentially expand on the eve of the new year. From border to border, from the Necanicum River in the north, to Winchuck River on our far south border, catchable numbers of winter steelhead are now present in every major river system and it is just the head of the run. Unlike salmon that rush the river in large schools at the first high-water event, steelhead trickle in during the season and the winter run often continues into early April. 

On rivers north of the Coquille River Basin, early returns have been primarily hatchery steelhead and the reports are good. On the central coast, hatchery steelhead have already found their way into the hatchery on the North Fork of the Alsea. A bit farther north at the North Fork of the Nehalem hatchery dozens of early returning hatchery steelhead have already been recycled down river. The Siletz, Siuslaw and the main Umpqua are in good shape and I have verified reports of fish being caught from several top river guides in those rivers too.

One big variable: We have a lot of frozen precipitation sitting on the ground. If the snow melts slowly it will hold all the coast rivers at ideal levels. If we get a warm rain that accelerates the snow melt … we could be looking at a serious blowout next week.

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