FRANK ARMENDARIZ / THE CHRONICLE - Orchard Point Marina on Fern Ridge Reservoir. April rain has nearly filled Fern Ridge and several other reservoirs in the Willamette Valley. With more wet weather in the forecast, the boating season in 2022 should be the best in several seasons.

The prospect of a year similar to last summer’s scorching heat has been drawing concerns from water managers, municipalities and irrigation districts – especially as it relates to the impact on recreation, wildlife, and fisheries. Last year was a hot, dry summer and it could likely be very hot again this summer. 

In the near-term, we are in a better place this year. Certain places in the Willamette Valley have normal conditions.

After a relatively dry and mild March, things really turned around in April, and by the end of the month, there were only a handful of dry days. The northwest portion of Oregon accumulated record amounts of rainfall – a truly welcomed development. 

But let’s be clear: by no means is this drought over. Much of Oregon remains within the parameters of “severe or extreme” drought. In the Willamette Valley, however, Mother Nature has given us a bit of a break. 

The cold and wet April characteristic of a La Niña weather pattern has been a blessing. River flows are strong and consistent with spring river levels of previous years. Most of the valley’s popular reservoirs will reach or come close to “full pool” this season, making the boating season last into the fall on a few of these artificial floor control lakes. 

It is a welcome reprieve from last summer, one I think we all deserve. 

Pool accumulation levels

At press time, accumulation levels for full pool level are as follows: 

• Detroit reservoir is 94% full

• Big Cliff: 74%

• Blue River: 93%

• Lookout Point: 60% 

• Dorena: 84%

• Cottage Grove: 85%

• Fern Ridge Reservoir: 94%

• Hills Creek: 34%

• Fall Creek: 23%

• Cougar Reservoir: 4% … used early this spring as a court-ordered mitigation to protect the out-migration of salmon smolts. It will likely not fill this season

• Foster Reservoir: 20% … also used to aid in the out-migration of salmon smolts.

We can expect that Hills Creek, Foster and possibly Fall Creek will reach levels suitable for boating, and are on schedule for trout stocking. 

All the reservoirs mentioned above with good lake levels have been stocked with trout and/or Kokanee and are ready to fish this weekend. 

From rivers to peaks 

Good news: the snowpack over the northern Cascade Mountains is near normal this season. Snowpack from the Umpqua basin is at about 80% and at Mt. Hood in the north Cascades, snow coverage is upwards of 100%. 

Snowpack only contributes about 10% to reservoir and lake levels. Its larger contribution is to ground water, and that will be reflected in river, stream and creek levels as the season progresses. 

Steelhead hatchery ceases

At its April meeting, the seven-member Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission voted to discontinue the production of hatchery steelhead at the Rock Creek hatchery near Glide. It will also no longer release hatchery steelhead into the North Umpqua River. Rock Creek is a tributary of the North Umpqua River. A 2020 fire damaged the hatchery and no steelhead had been released since then.

The move has stunned many who had hopes the hatchery would be rebuilt. Others are delighted and believe hatchery steelhead – when allowed to spawn with wild steelhead – diminish the fish’s genetics, making them less viable in the wild. 

The controversial decision has fueled a bit of resentment between a number of factions within the fishing and river guide communities. Adding to the ire was the fact that an ODFW staff biologist had made the recommendation to continue the hatchery program on the North Umpqua at reduced numbers, with a reduction of over 50%. That’s about a 30,000 smolt release. 

Shaun Clements, the deputy administrator for the fish division of ODFW, told commissioners that “numbers of wild summer steelhead in the North Umpqua River had been declining primarily due to poor river and ocean conditions, fires, drought and rising water temperatures, the results of a changing climate.” But wild fish advocates prevailed, convincing enough commissioners that too many hatchery steelhead were straying into wild fish spawning habitat. 

Then in a 4-3 vote, the commission stalled the hatchery program for the next 10 years, favoring instead the argument that removing the hatchery fish would help re-establish wild steelhead stocks, and that retention could again be possible in the future. 

Time will tell, but personally I will miss the hatchery summer run on the North Umpqua. Colliding Rivers to Whistlers Bend is a personal favorite. The boating is challenging at low levels and causes some to shy away. Once past the old gravel yard, you would often have the river to yourself. I would always run around the island to the left at Whistlers Falls. It’s a little bony but the possibility of a misplaced oar stroke in “Whistlers” has consequences that are best avoided. I will keep fishing the North Umpqua even if it’s catch and release only.

Halibut season kicks off

A seven-day-a-week halibut season kicks off in a couple of weeks. In recent years, the season has been confined to a Friday-through-Sunday schedule. The seven-day-a-week season should give more anglers the opportunity to take advantage of this wonderful fishery. One of our most managed for sustainable saltwater fisheries, its halibut can easily run over 100 pounds. 

Last season, unpredictable conditions often closed the fishing on many weekends and only 40% of the annual quota was landed. With the daily schedule, ocean captains will have more days to fish and planning around ocean conditions should be much easier.

Unless you have solid saltwater skills and a craft capable of navigating the unforgiving Pacific Ocean, it’s time to book a charter and get on the captain’s call list. Your chances of getting on the water this season have never been better.

The halibut fishing along the central Oregon coast runs May 12 through June 30.

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