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The Observer paper 12/26/14

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EARLY RETURN

CONCENTRATION: Tyler Reddington, a La Grande High senior, fishes for steelhead on the Wallowa River last week. He frequently heads to river on weekdays as soon as school dismisses. (Observer photos/PHIL BULLOCK).
CONCENTRATION: Tyler Reddington, a La Grande High senior, fishes for steelhead on the Wallowa River last week. He frequently heads to river on weekdays as soon as school dismisses. (Observer photos/PHIL BULLOCK).

By Dick Mason

Observer Staff Writer

Northeast Oregon is experiencing a mild winter, but there is nothing mild about the region's steelhead fishing outlook.

Mild weather is helping make things a little wild for steelheaders in this region.

A combination of factors have converged to boost the outlook for the late winter and early spring steelhead fishing season.

"The prospects are excellent. There are steelhead throughout the system,'' said Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife biologist Rich Carmichael.

Conditions are so good that in the Troy area anglers were catching a steelhead an average of once every four hours in mid-February. The recent cold snap has boosted the time to one fish every 15 hours.

In Washington, anglers are also experiencing great success. Two anglers fishing from Bogan's Oasis north on the Grande Ronde River for 5-6 miles recently reported that they caught 60 steelhead in two days, said Carmichael said.

The reason for the success and the fact that steelhead are so widespread in this region can be traced to three factors:

• a strong run of steelhead returning from the Pacific Ocean.

• low river water flows last fall. This meant that some steelhead entered the Grande Ronde River system later than normal last fall, reducing the autumn angler success rate. This is one reason why steelhead are spread out over a larger area this winter.

• mild winter weather that is causing steelhead to begin their spawning migration earlier.

Proof that steelhead are beginning their migration earlier can be found at the ODFW's Big Canyon facility between Minam and Wallowa. Steelhead began arriving there around Feb. 1. Normally they do not come until early March, Carmichael said.

Young hatchery steelhead are released from Big Canyon. Many of the steelhead that return there as adults are used as brood stock for spawning.

Despite the fact that steelhead are returning to spawning sites earlier this spring, the ODFW does not plan to move back the traditional April 15 season closing date. Oregon's steelhead season always runs from Sept. 1 to April 15 because, regardless of conditions, steelhead are always moving through the Grande Ronde River system in mid-April.

The mild winter could have a negative impact on future steelhead runs in Northeast Oregon because it has reduced the snowpack, which will impact water levels. As a result, young steelhead may have a harder time beginning their migration to the ocean this spring.

Carmichael is also worried that low water levels may hurt returning wild steelhead. The low water may reduce the areas available for spawning. Wild steelhead might not be able to get into areas where they typically spawn.

"This could affect production,'' Carmichael said.

Wild steelhead spawn in rivers. Hatchery steelhead typically go back to the man-made facilities they were released from.

Anglers can keep only hatchery raised steelhead that have had their adipose fins clipped. The bag limit is three steelhead per day.

The returning run of steelhead consists 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.

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