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STEELHEAD ACTION HEATS UP IN GRANDE RONDE BASIN

Les Gore of La Grande, left, landed a steelhead Monday on the Wallowa River while fishing with T. J. Frye of Island City. (Observer photos/DICK MASON).
Les Gore of La Grande, left, landed a steelhead Monday on the Wallowa River while fishing with T. J. Frye of Island City. (Observer photos/DICK MASON).

- Dick Mason

- The Observer

Do you have seven hours to spare?

You could drive to Boise, catch a jet to Disneyland and spend hours at the Magic Kingdom enjoying its "E'' ticket rides.

Another option is to cast a line in the waters of the Wallowa or lower Grande Ronde rivers and experience a sportsman's E ticket ride — the thrill of landing a steelhead.

Current steelhead catch rates are under 6.9 hours per fish in all portions of the Grande Ronde Basin.

"We consider a catch rate of 10 hours or less very good,'' said the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife's Mike Flesher.

Angler surveys conducted by the ODFW between Feb. 26 and Sunday indicate the following steelhead catch rates:

• Lower Grande Ronde River in Troy vicinity: 6.9 hours per steelhead.

• Imnaha River: 6.2 hours.

• Wallowa River: 6.1 hours.

• Rondowa, the junction of the Wallowa and Grande Ronde rivers: 3.4 hours.

The catch rates were determined by the ODFW following interviews with more than 100 anglers. Hatchery and wild steelhead are counted in the surveys. Anglers can keep only hatchery-raised steelhead, fish whose adipose fins have been clipped.

The good catch rates are not surprising since counts of steelhead passing over the Bonneville and Lower Granite dams the past year have been promising.

Flesher explained that the 2006 counts at the dams are similar to those of 2005, which preceded a strong spring 2006 season.

At Bonneville Dam, 333,250 steelhead passed by in 2006. That's up from 314,721 in 2005. The 2006 total is well over the 10-year average of 322,847.

Count figures also indicate that 145,447 steelhead swam by Lower Granite Dam in 2006. That's down from the 2005 total of 155,567, but higher than the 10-year average of 139,845.

Anglers are doing well in the Grande Ronde Basin even though water levels are below optimum in some places. This should change, though, because recent warm temperatures are increasing mountain snow melt, causing rivers to rise, Flesher said.

Shallow water hurts anglers because it gives steelhead few holding pools to rest in while migrating to spawning areas, said Dave Chapman, owner of Four Seasons Fly Shoppe in Island City. This means they are more likely to move quickly through the river to their spawning site, giving anglers fewer chances to land them. Steelhead do not hold up in shallow water because they become more vulnerable to predators such as eagles and osprey.

The warmer weather will also help by heating up river waters, making steelhead more active, Chapman said. Steelhead move most when water temperatures are in the 50 to 62-degree range. The sea-run trout get lethargic when water temperature falls to the high 30s or low 40s or climbs to the high 60s.

Steelhead generally have less energy in the spring than in the fall. In the spring, steelhead have gone four to six months without eating since leaving the Pacific Ocean to begin their spawning migration.

"They have expended a lot of energy. They are at the end of a marathon,'' Chapman said.

Some spring steelhead, though, appear to have autumn-level energy.

"Some run and jump and are full of pizzazz,'' Chapman said.

Steelhead that started their spawning migration several months later than others in the Grande Ronde Basin are likely to have more energy because they have gone less time without eating.

"Their tanks have more gas. They are fresher and spunkier,'' Chapman said.

Landing a steelhead, regardless of its energy level, is a challenging task. It is why steelhead have been nicknamed "The Fish of a Thousand Casts,'' according to outdoor writer J.D. Richey in the January edition of Salmon Trout Steelheader.

Like Richey, Chapman said that landing a steelhead is an accomplishment that should never be taken lightly.

It is often said that you have to pay your dues through hard work before landing your first steelhead. Chapman said anglers, in a figurative sense, carry a dues card that they can take out and stamp "paid in full'' after landing their first steelhead.

Most of the fish being caught in the Grande Ronde Basin are one-salts — that is, they spent one year in the Pacific Ocean before beginning their migration back to Northeast Oregon.

The others are two-salts. These fish spent two years in the ocean before starting their return migration.

One-salt steelhead usually weigh 3 to 6 pounds. Two salts weigh 7 to 9 pounds.

Anglers, though, will not have any luck if they try to land a one-salt or two-salt hatchery steelhead at La Grande's Riverside Park this spring. The reason is that the ODFW no longer releases steelhead smolts in the Upper Grande Ronde. Thus, no hatchery steelhead return there to spawn. The ODFW's last release of steelhead smolts in the Upper Grande Ronde was in 1998.

The ODFW no longer releases steelhead smolts in the Upper Grande Ronde because it does not want hatchery steelhead interfering with wild ones.

The steelhead season runs through April 15. Anglers are urged to check the ODFW's synopsis for details about regulations.

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