These are among the top steelhead fishing locations in the Pacific Northwest states of Washington and Oregon.
They wait like kids at Christmas. Impatiently pacing. Watching. Scanning the Internet daily, fingertips searching for just a glimmer of information. Of hope.
The Weather Channel. River flows. Dam counts. Numbers rise. Excitement levels grow. Rumors drip…drip…drip like drops from an ill-maintained faucet. One here. One there. Gear is collected. Inspected. Everything has to be perfect, for this is no mere event. Not your ordinary run-of-the-mill adventure. No; this is all about one thing, to many the epitome — the symbol — of the Pacific Northwest. The most wild of wild. The Grail.
These are steelhead. But, for all their celebrity status, these ocean-going rainbow-hued brutes provide the ultimate in a good news/bad news scenario. Here, we’ll take a look at some of the finest steelhead fisheries to be found in the Pacific Northwest and a little of what anglers could expect this season.
To say Washington’s steelhead program from A to Z — that is, hatcheries, biology, fluctuating populations, regulations and angling opportunities — is in a constant state of flux would be to make, perhaps, the ultimate understatement. However, the major topic of conversation is the lackluster, and some would say downright dismal, steelhead run that appeared — or more precisely, didn’t appear — during the summer of 2017.
“I don’t think fishermen were exaggerating (about summer 2017),” said Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife research biologist Tom Buehrens. A statistical analyst for the agency, Buehrens wears multitudinous hats, including those which focus on a statewide fisheries level, as well as the Columbia River and steelhead specifically. “This (2017) was the worst summer return in a couple of decades.”
How bad is bad? According to Buehrens, the 2017 summer run was the third worst since 1994, and the fifth worst since 1938 based on the number of fish counted at the Columbia River’s Bonneville Dam facility after May 1. These dark realities were confirmed at a series of meetings held by a committee consisting of representatives from state, federal and tribal entities.
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The Technical Advisory Committee uses compiled data to develop pre-season run forecasts, not only for steelhead but salmon as well. In-season updates, again researched and provided by the TAC, allow agency personnel on both sides of the Columbia to adjust fisheries so they might meet management objectives.
Following late summer meetings to review, specifically, the summer steelhead situation, the TAC downgraded preseason estimates for the category known as A-run or A-index fish from 122,100 to 54,000, which included 33,000 hatchery steelhead and a mere 21,000 wild steelhead.
Again, as of late summer, the combined A/B-run forecast stood at 119,400 fish. This represents 54 percent of the A-run five-year average, and only 25 percent of the B-run.
Currently, as they have for some time now, steelhead are placed into one of two subsets — A-run, or those measuring less that 31 inches, approximately, from snout to tail fork, and B-run, those that measure more than 31 inches. A-run fish traditionally return to the Columbia and Snake river basins, while B-run continue into the Snake River tributaries in Idaho.
Washington state fisheries managers instituted, effective Sept. 1, a catch-and-release only order on steelhead from the mouth of the Snake near the Tri-Cities to the Idaho/Oregon border. At the same time, officials imposed a one-hatchery fish per day limit on several Snake River tributaries, to include the Grande Ronde, Touchet, and Tucannon rivers.
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Since June 2017, emergency rules handed down by the WDFW limited anglers on a lengthy list of waters to comply not only with this one-hatchery fish per day restriction, but also contend with a prohibition of the traditional night steelhead fishery enjoyed by so many.
Waters included the Columbia from the Astoria-Megler Bridge upstream to Pasco; the Cowlitz from the Lexington Bridge downstream; the Lewis from its confluence with the East Fork; the Wind downstream from Shipherd Falls; Drano Lake; and the White Salmon River downstream from the county bridge. Other sections of the Columbia likewise closed throughout September and well into November.
For many, biologist and angler alike, the obvious question is why? How does the Pacific Northwest, once the epicenter of steelheading, slip into what many consider a shadow of its former self?
“It’s never one thing only,” noted Buehrens. “In this case, I think the biggest factor was The Blob in the spring and summer of 2015-16. For juvenile steelhead going (out) to sea, conditions were awful.”
The Blob, a huge upwelling of abnormally warm water stretching from Mexico north to Alaska, covered at its largest more than 3.5 million surface acres of the Pacific Ocean. Correspondingly, water temperatures within The Blob increased five degrees Fahrenheit in some cases.
Buehrens explained: “The Blob crashed into the Washington shore in September 2014, bringing with it warm, nutrient-poor water. This warm anomaly continued through the summer of 2015. Then there was the horrible snowpack (of 2015), and the incredibly low run-off in the spring of 2016. It affected multiple species, not just steelhead, but Chinook and coho salmon as well.”
The low outflow in the Columbia, a result of the below-normal snow pack, made for clearer, warmer water; conditions that not only delay the seaward migration (outflow) of steelhead and salmon smolts, but swing the odds in favor of the predators that abound in the Columbia River basin.
“Conditions,” said Buehrens, “didn’t improve (much) in the spring and summer of 2016, with El Nino. Then, La Nina in the fall and winter of 2016-17. So, we still have nutrient poor conditions, warmer water (temperatures) and a low food base, plus the predation aspect.”
But is it all doom and gloom? Is there a bright spot to Washington’s steelhead scenario?
“I think there is a bright spot,” stated Buehrens, “but we have to get through a little more dark tunnel first.”
Steelhead, explained the researcher, generally return to their native streams after one to two years at sea; winter runs, aka B-runs, after two to three years in the salt. This mean the 2017-18 winter runs, which should be arriving at the doorstep of their home tributaries at the same time this issue hits the newsstands, went to sea in the summer of 2015-16.
Buehrens continued: “That means they likely had bad ocean conditions. But, winter run steelhead are more coastal, and therefore (likely) didn’t get the double whammy of the low-flow river conditions and the ocean. As for the 2018 summer runs, I’m cautiously optimistic, and for a couple of reasons. One, we got rid of The Blob. And La Nina in the winter of 2016 helped turn over the coastal ocean, setting us up for more productive conditions for the future.”
Crossing his fingers that things will look better in 2018, Buehrens finished with these words of wisdom.
“And two,” he said, “and while I don’t want to make too much of this quite yet, there is a little bit of data to suggest that 2016 may have been better than 2015, and we’ll see a return to low average returns. Still, it’s statistically improbable that (subsequent years) will be worse than 2017.”
Southwest and South-Central
In southwest Washington, and many will say throughout the whole of the Evergreen State, no river is more synonymous with steelhead than is the Cowlitz. Blue Creek. The Barrier Dam. Launch at Rainier, Oregon, run across, and tie yourself in a hogline at the mouth of the river, fingers crossed they’re not running a dredge. Again. If you live on the Westside and have fished for steelhead, even once, there’s awfully good chance you’ve dropped a line into the Cowlitz somewhere.
But — and didn’t you just know there would be a “but”? — even the legendary Cowlitz was somewhat lackluster during the summer of 2017.
“The Cowlitz was poor in 2017,” advised WDFW Region 5 fisheries biologist, Tom Wadsworth. “We had enough summer steelhead to meet hatchery goals, but not by much.”
There were, Wadsworth continued, low returns everywhere in the Columbia Basin; not just on the Cowlitz. Some, he said, were worse that others, but to be expected, it seemed. “The (steelhead) returns were forecast to be low,” he stated, “and it seems like those predictions are coming to fruition.”
Fortunately, there is a little good news.
“We’re continuing releases of summer steelhead on the Elochoman River,” the biologist commented, “and we’re trying to get a better handle on the fishery there.”
As Game & Fish reported in 2016, the Grays River, a one-time famed southwest Washington steelhead stream, has returned to a native fish-only status. However, hatchery efforts at the Grays River facility are still very much alive, with smolts being trucked from the Grays to the Elochoman in hopes of reviving that once-famed Wahkiakum County fishery.
No, it’s not all puppy dogs and rainbow-colored unicorns; however, opportunities still do exist for those with a passion for these hard-fighting ocean run rainbows. In southwest Washington, the mainstem Columbia, Cowlitz, Kalama, North Fork Lewis, Grays and Elochoman rivers certainly hold potential.
Farther east along The Gorge, the Washougal, Klickitat and White Salmon rivers continue to produce, as does Drano Lake near the village of White Salmon. The town of Forks on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula still serves as a hub for those steelheading the pristine waters of the Bogachiel, Quillayute, Calawah, Sol Duc and Hoh rivers.
“We saw a good run of summer steelhead in 2016,” reported Robert Bradley, with Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife’s Tillamook District. “That run was reduced in 2017 from the previous year,” he continued, “but there were still decent numbers of fish out there.”
High water, Bradley said, throughout the winter of 2016-17 and well into the early part of the summer of 2017 very likely interfered, often dramatically, with both fishing effort and catch rates.
“We had rains beginning in October (2016) and lasting until June,” he said, “with a lot of blow-out days and few sustained periods during which the rivers had a chance to drop. And it was cold, which very likely was a contributing factor to the fish coming later. We still had a good push of (steelhead) into the third week of April, which is later than normal.”
Oregon’s Best Steelhead Waters
In north-central Oregon, the John Day River is a primary focal point for state steelheaders.
Oregon’s Steve Fleming is a 30-year veteran of the John Day and owner of Mah-Hah Outfitters guide service.
“We had a very good year last year (2016) starting in October and continuing through April 2017,” he advised. “This year (2017), the predictions weren’t nearly as good; however, there always seems to be a good flow of fish that come back to this native-only river because it’s not dependent on hatchery released fish.”
Fleming continued: “I’m looking for a good season (2018), similar to last year where I was averaging two fish per person per day.”
A short jaunt to the west, the Deschutes River is another north-central option worth investigating.
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Sliding over to the northwest corner are the Wilson and Trask rivers. These are planned fisheries; rivers supplemented via efforts on the part of ODFW personnel. Other options aside from the one-two punch provided by the Wilson and Trask include the Nestucca River near Pacific City, and the Siletz River south of Lincoln City.
Metro-anglers and those wishing to poke around the fringes of the Rose City will want to try their hand at one or more of The Big Three — the Clackamas, Willamette and Sandy rivers. Perhaps not surprising due to its proximity to the population center, the
Clackamas is a popular fishery around the calendar. However, its waters hold both wild and hatchery steelhead from three separate stocks, thus providing almost year-round possibilities. As for the Sandy, only time will tell how, if at all, the Eagle Creek Fire centered in the Columbia River Gorge and reaching east to the Portland suburb of Troutdale (September 2017) will affect the fishery there.
The perennial shining stars of the Oregon steelheading scene are the Rogue and Umpqua rivers. Coursing through some of the Beaver State’s most visually stunning country, both flows offer blue-ribbon angling, not only for steelhead, but fall kings as well.
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