ON THE MOVE
Looking for something exciting to do that takes only five hours?
You could drive to Boise, catch a flight to Disneyland and enjoy rides like the Matterhorn.
Here's another option: stay in Northeast Oregon and do what's more thrilling than an E-ticket ride at Disneyland Â— land a 4- to 10-pound steelhead.
Steelhead fishing in Northeast Oregon is hot, so hot that anglers in a 12-mile stretch of the lower Grande Ronde River caught a steelhead an average of once every five hours from September through January. And things are not cooling down. In January the catch rate over this stretch, which runs from Wildcat Creek Bridge to the Oregon-Washington border, was 2.9 hours per fish.
How noteworthy are these numbers?
Let Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife biologist Rich Carmichael put them in perspective.
"Our goal is 10 hours per fish. We consider that good,'' Carmichael said. "A catch rate of five hours a fish is exceptional.''
A year ago, the catch rate for the same time period was 5.9 hours per fish.
This season's catch rate, not coincidentally, is up because temperatures are up. A lack of prolonged freezing weather in Northeast Oregon means that steelhead have been moving up the lower Grande Ronde River to the Wallowa River all fall and winter. In chillier winters, steelhead may stay in the Troy area until February because of cold water, which discourages them from traveling.
"They are like a parking lot (when it's freezing),'' said Dave Chapman, owner of Four Seasons Fly Shoppe in Island City.
Steelhead shift straight from park into high gear when temperatures reach the 40-degree range they are at now.
"Water temperatures have remained in the range in which steelhead can continue migrating up the river,'' Carmichael said.
Warmer temperatures also make better conditions for anglers. In cold winters, there is often ice floating in rivers. The ice can get caught in anglers' lines, causing a number of problems, said Rob Lamb, owner of the Joseph Fly Shoppe.
The fact that temperatures likely will remain warm as late winter nears is not the only reason the outlook for steelhead anglers is strong. The run that is returning is strong, according to counts of fish at dams. For example, at Lower Granite Dam, the last one that steelhead cross on the Snake River before entering the lower Grande Ronde, the count is 1.26 times the 10-year average.
The count is down slightly from a year ago but still strong, Carmichael said.
The outlook for steelhead anglers could be dimmed by heavy rains, which could cause rivers to swell and become cloudy.
"It's hard to see fish when there's a lot of color (in the water),'' said Lamb.
A low snowpack, however, reduces the chances of a significant spring runoff, Carmichael said.
The steelhead anglers catch in the winter are often less lively than those taken in the fall. This is because steelhead eat very little once they enter the Columbia River from the Pacific Ocean and begin swimming upstream to their spawning grounds. After returning to freshwater, steelhead rely primarily on their body fat for energy. Their fat reserves are much greater in the fall.
Chapman noted, though, that there are a number of steelhead displaying high energy this winter after being hooked.
"Some are lethargic, but some are rambunctious,'' Chapman said.
He noted that sometimes the reason a steelhead may seem tired is that it may have been hooked a short time earlier by another angler before escaping. Chapman knows of at least one instance this winter in which the same fish was hooked twice in a period of a couple of hours.
Many steelhead that anglers are landing are either very dark or quite light, Carmichael said. The darker fish are those closer to being ready to spawn. The lighter fish, which have a reflective chrome look, will spawn later. Steelhead spawn between mid-March and the third week of May.
The bag limit is three hatchery steelhead a day. Hatchery steelhead are those that have had their adipose fins clipped. Many anglers, however, are catching more than three steelhead a day and then releasing them.
"In the Troy area, people are having multiple, multiple fish days,'' Chapman said.
Steelhead angler Mark Gomez of La Grande said that fishing has been so good recently that word is getting out throughout the Northwest.
"You are seeing more out-of-state licenses (at steelhead fishing sites),'' Gomez said.
He said it's fortunate to live where the fishing is so good that many people can land more than one fish a day.
"Anywhere you go, landing one steelhead a day is considered great,'' he said.
Gomez said, though, that in Northeast Oregon some anglers who land one steelhead in a day are not as excited as they might be.
"They won't be as happy because they may hear about someone else who caught 10 to 12 steelhead. It happens,'' Gomez said.
Steelhead season in Northeast Oregon runs through April 15. Anglers can keep only steelhead that are at least 20 inches long. Steelhead under 20 inches in Northeast Oregon are classified as rainbow trout and must be put back in the river.
A very small percentage of steelhead which have returned from the ocean are under 20 inches, said Mike Flesher of the ODFW.
Returning steelhead that spent one year in the ocean are 20 to 25 inches long. Steelhead that spent two years at sea are at least 25
inches long, and some are up to 32 or 33 inches long.