Tough steelhead season expected in NE Oregon

November 21, 2020
Tough steelhead season expected in NE Oregon

ENTERPRISE — Following a trend set in recent years, anglers fishing the Grande Ronde and its tributaries for steelhead can expect sparse returns and a disproportionate number of uncut fins this season.

"It’s been pretty tough," said Jeff Yanke, district fish biologist with the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife in Enterprise. "Steelhead returns are still at the lowest levels we’ve seen in the last 10 to 15 years, slightly better returns than last year but not by much. Catch rates have been pretty low."

Steelhead entered the Grande Ronde river system during September and October and have been awaiting a rise in water levels before making their journey upriver. The winter storm last weekend may well provide that boost.

But even if higher water levels do bring fish upstream, Yanke said steelhead returns likely will be disappointing this season.

"We’re expecting about 1,500 to 1,600 hatchery steelhead returning to the Grande Ronde and Wallowa fisheries this year," Yanke said. "It’s one of the lowest we’ve observed. And we’re expecting about 1,200 to 1,300 hatchery returning to the Imnaha system this year."

Hatchery-raised steelhead, easily identified by the smooth nub along the spine where their adipose fin was removed, have been returning in even more dismal numbers this season than their wild-borne brethren, Yanke said.

"For about every four fish caught down there, only one has been a hatchery fish, and three have been wild," Yanke estimated. "For those anglers that want to be keeping steelhead, it hasn’t been a great year. But if you like catching and releasing just wild steelhead, your catch rates are a little bit better."

Yanke said the Grande Ronde and Wallowa rivers would likely see that 3:1 ratio of wild to hatchery steelhead, while the Imnaha river was likely to see roughly even numbers of each.

Wild steelhead cannot be kept by anglers and, when caught, must be released to spawn and die in their home rivers, thus completing their salmonid life cycle and depositing nutrients into the local ecosystem. Yanke said those nutrients are important for local plant and animal life.

Yanke said that a driving factor for the low steelhead returns is poor ocean conditions, which he described as being so complex that it "would be a days-long phone conversation to explain," but did note that warm ocean temperatures and a persistent El Nino weather pattern had contributed to poor survival rates for Pacific steelhead.

"It’s good to talk about," said Yanke. "If Northeast Oregon steelhead were the only steelhead population in the Colombia Basin that was doing poorly, you’d expect that there were some localized things going on here. But it kind of paints a picture across the Colombia Basin of what’s going on with anadromous fish stocks."

While hatchery fish may prove scarce for Northeast Oregon anglers this year, Yanke said there would still be plenty of opportunity for steelhead enthusiasts to land one of the beauties, provided they were willing to be flexible.

"The great thing about the Grande Ronde fishery is that those fish will take anything, from nymphs to swung flies, to spinners, to jigs under a bobber, to bait under a bobber," Yanke said. "There’s so many ways you can catch steelhead, don’t get too engrained in using one method. If you can, throw a variety of things at them, increase your odds that way. Move around a bunch, and just be willing to put your time in. I think that’s the most important thing."

Ever the challenge for the angler, patience and determination may well prove to be the difference between success and failure for Northeast Oregon steelheaders this winter.

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