Steelhead season set to peak on Lower Deschutes

September 19, 2020
Steelhead season set to peak on Lower Deschutes

They are often called “the fish of 1,000 casts.”

Anglers can spend all day on the river, maybe get one or two hookups, and that is considered a good day when fishing for steelhead.

It takes a certain type of dedicated angler to commit to fishing for the elusive steelhead, but now is the time and the Lower Deschutes River is the place.

“The Deschutes is probably one of the best places in the West to fly-fish for steelhead,” said Rod French, an Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife biologist based in The Dalles. “Just from the nature of the river, the desert environment, the run timing, and water conditions when fish are present. But you need to be persistent to catch them.”

Steelhead are large, ocean-going rainbow trout that return to their native streams to spawn. On the Deschutes, steelhead can travel all the way from the mouth upstream to Pelton Dam near Lake Billy Chinook, a stretch of some 100 miles. According to French, the numbers of steelhead are always greater closer to the mouth of the Deschutes, which for anglers from Central Oregon makes a longer trip farther downstream potentially worthwhile.

Each year, the peak of the summer steelhead run reaches Sherars Falls on the Deschutes River in mid-September. French added that steelhead reach Warm Springs in large numbers by early October. Fishing can stay good from Maupin to Warm Springs through December, until the water gets really cold and the fish become lethargic.

The size of a steelhead is based on the age class of the fish. One-salt fish (steelhead that spend one year in the ocean) range from about 4 to 7 pounds. Two-salt fish range from 7 to 13 pounds.

The Lower Deschutes includes a mix of wild (native) and hatchery steelhead. French said there are about twice as many hatchery steelhead than wild steelhead in the Lower Deschutes. But wild steelhead are more likely to strike at whatever fly or lure an angler is offering.

“Wild fish get caught at a much higher rate than hatchery fish,” French said. “They’re just more aggressive.”

All wild steelhead (adipose fin intact) caught on the Deschutes must be released, per ODFW sport fishing regulations.

The ODFW does not make specific fish-run forecasts for the Deschutes, but steelhead and chinook salmon returning to the Deschutes River from the Pacific Ocean must make their way over both Bonneville Dam and The Dalles Dam on the Columbia River before they can turn south into the Deschutes.

French said steelhead fishing in the Deschutes has improved considerably, compared with last year.

The Columbia River run size is a bit larger than last year but still well below the 10-year average, which is about 200,000 steelhead.

This year, 82,000 fish are predicted to return over the dams on the Columbia, French noted.

“Looking at dam counts, numbers have been better and earlier this year,” French said. “But our numbers in the Deschutes have been down considerably since 2016. Last year we had a pretty low return, and we’ve had low returns since 2016.”

French added that poor Pacific Ocean conditions have driven the decline in the steelhead run numbers.

“It has to do with warm temperatures, and lack of food when the fish first hit the ocean in the spring and early summer,” he explained. “They need to be in great shape when they first hit the ocean to make that long migration. We’ve also been suffering through several years of drought conditions. Those are the two factors that have driven the population down.”

On a more positive note, the number of wild steelhead on Columbia dam counts has been higher this year than the last two years, French said. And the number of B-index fish — bigger fish that are destined for the upper Snake River but do turn into the Lower Deschutes — is up.

The current run-size prediction for those at Columbia dams is 10,200, according to French.

“It was a just a couple years ago that those numbers were down to about 1,000 fish,” he said. “They’ve improved. We do catch a few of those in the Lower Deschutes, but not too many above Sherars Falls anymore.”

French said that the best places on the Lower Deschutes to find steelhead are at breaks in the current, where the fish may stop to rest.

They are not typically found in deep holes.

Many steelhead anglers on the Lower Deschutes fly-fish with a two-hand spey rod, allowing them to cover more water than with a single-hand rod.

French estimated that 80 percent of steelhead fly anglers on the Lower Deschutes are employing a spey rod. And he said that about half of all steelhead anglers on the Deschutes are fly-fishing.

“Spey casting has really increased the number of fly anglers over the years,” French said.

In addition to steelhead, fall chinook salmon are arriving in the Lower Deschutes at this time of year, and another big run similar to last year’s is expected,

French noted. Fall chinook are found in deeper holding water and can grow up to 40 pounds.

“The fall chinook kind of corral the steelhead out of the deeper holes,” French said. “The steelhead are more in the breaks of current, where they can rest and hold, but not so much in the deep holes out in the middle of the river where you might expect the fall chinook.”

Fishing for chinook on the Lower Deschutes is allowed from the mouth upstream to Sherars Falls through Oct. 31.

Reporter: 541-383-0318,

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