December 27, 2001 11:00 pm

By Dick Mason

Observer Staff Writer

Do you have three hours to spare and would like a thrill?

Use the time to catch a steelhead if you live in the Troy area.

Steelhead fishing on the Grande Ronde River near Troy is as hot as the weather is cold.

The catch rate is a remarkable one fish for every three hours of angling, according to the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlifes latest creel survey. The survey was taken Dec. 22-23.

This is a fantastic catch rate for steelhead, said La Grande ODFW biologist Tim Walters.

The catch rate in the area had been seven-to-10 hours per steelhead earlier this month.

Steelhead will be holding at the Troy area through early- to mid- January. Then many will continue their migration to spawning sites on the Wallowa and Grande Ronde rivers. A number of steelhead though will continue holding in the Troy area.

Conditions for steelhead fishing are good partly because there is little slush ice floating down the river, Walters said. Slush ice poses problems because anglers lines can get caught in it.

Fishing conditions near Troy are not perfect, though, since freezing weather is causing ice to form on the guides of rods, the fish biologist said. This makes it difficult to cast.

It is not surprising that steelhead fishing is excellent. This is because counts of steelhead passing Bonneville Dam on the Columbia River and Lower Granite Dam on the Grande Ronde River during late summer and early fall were very high.

Due to the high runs, the Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission boosted this fall the number of steelhead that can be taken a day from two to three. The increased bag limit will be in effect for the rest of the season, which opened Sept. 1 and ends April 15.

All steelhead taken must be hatchery-raised fish which have had their adipose fins clipped.

This years strong run can be linked to several factors. There were good river conditions when the steelhead began their migration from Northeast Oregon to the Pacific in the spring of 1999 and 2000.

A good ocean environment was another factor. The fish were in the Pacific at a time when ocean currents provided them with good food resources. The food supply was excellent in part because there was no El Nio effect in 1999 and 2000. El Nio conditions bring warm currents to the northern Pacific Ocean.

This years 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.