By Dick Mason
Observer Staff Writer
This may be the most fish available since the (Northeast Oregon) fishery opened in 1986, said Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife biologist Rich Carmichael.
Steelhead season is now open and runs through April 15, 2002.
The outlook is bright except for the fact that there are low flows in the Grande Ronde River. This could make it harder for steelhead to continue moving up the Grande Ronde River to the Troy area.
I would have greater confidence in the continued movement of steelhead up the Grande Ronde River to Troy if there are greater flows, Carmichael said.
Autumn rains are needed to increase the flows.
If we get sufficient rainfall we will be in good shape, Carmichael said.
Make that very good shape. Carmichael has never seen such a bumper run of steelhead in this area.
A look at fish count numbers explains why Carmichael and others are optimistic.
At Bonneville Dam, 559,966 steelhead had passed by as of Sept. 16. The 10-year average for steelhead making it past Bonneville Dam by Sept. 16 is 200,174. This means that steelhead have been traveling past Bonneville Dam at 2.8 times the average rate.
Last year, 251,154 steelhead had passed Bonneville Dam as of Sept. 16.
At Lower Granite Dam, the last dam fish pass before reaching the Grande Ronde River, 44,776 steelhead had passed through as of Sept. 16. The 10-year average is 17,114 as of Sept. 16.
Over the last seven days 1,000 to 2,000 steelhead have been passing Lower Granite Dam a day.
The above numbers refer to hatchery raised steelhead.
Wild steelhead runs are also up. As of Tuesday, 141,882 had passed Bonneville Dam. Last year, 73,188 had passed the dam at this time.
Once steelhead enter the Grande Ronde River some will move to the Troy area. Steelhead will be primarily distributed and available for catch this fall from Wildcat Bridge to the confluence of the Grande Ronde and Snake rivers.
Because of the high runs, the Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission has boosted the number of steelhead that can be taken a day from two to three. The increased bag limit will be in effect through Dec. 31. The commission will meet later to discuss whether the expanded bag limit should be extended through April 15, the end of the season.
In Union and Wallowa counties the increased bag limit applies everywhere people can fish for steelhead. People can fish for steelhead in portions of the the Grand Ronde River, Catherine Creek, the Wallowa River and the Imnaha River. Anglers should check regulations to determine which areas are open.
This years strong run can be linked to several factors. There were good river conditions when the steelhead began their migration to the Pacific in the spring of 1999 and 2000.
We had good migratory conditions, including good flows and temperatures, Carmichael said.
A good ocean environment was another positive factor. The fish were in the Pacific at a time when ocean currents provided them with good food resources. The food supply was good in part because there was no El Nino effect in 1999 and 2000. El Nino conditions bring warm currents to the northern Pacific Ocean.
Carmichael said that during El Nino years there is poor steelhead survival because warm water does not provide good food sources. In addition, the El Nino effect brings in a different community of steelhead predators.
Many of the steelhead arriving in Northeast Oregon will begin moving into the Wallowa River, Catherine Creek and the Upper Grande Ronde River in February and March.
There should be a lot of steelhead available in the spring, Carmichael said.
He believes steelhead fishing is best in the fall because the fish have a lot more energy than they will in the spring.
They are more acrobatic now and will fight longer, he said.
A higher energy level means steelhead will bite on flies and spinners. In the spring steelhead are more likely to bite only on bait.
Steelhead have less energy in the spring because their fat reserves have been depleted. Steelhead eat very little after beginning their migration from the Pacific Ocean.
Steelhead also have less energy in the spring because of colder water temperatures.
This years returning run of steelhead will consist of large numbers of one-ocean and two-ocean fish. One-ocean steelhead spend one year in the ocean and two- ocean fish spend two years. Two-ocean steelhead weigh 8-12 pounds and one-ocean steelhead weigh 4-7 pounds.