August 09, 2022
By Glenn Zinkus
The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife will open the Deschutes River to steelhead fishing from August 15 to September 15, and possibly longer if a fish-count threshold over Bonneville Dam is met by the end of August. The July threshold of at least 9,900 steelhead was achieved on July 23, and as of August 7th, a total of 18,122 wild steelhead passed Bonneville Dam.
Declining steelhead populations up and down the West Coast closed rivers to angling in 2021, and in no place was this more evident than in the Columbia Basin. The 2021 steelhead returns were the lowest since record keeping began in 1938. As such, the Deschutes River, one of Oregon’s famed steelhead fisheries and an early bellwether of steelhead populations along the Columbia River was closed to steelhead fishing during the late summer of 2021 by the Oregon Department of Fish & Wildlife (ODFW) to protect dwindling populations of the few wild steelhead who swam up the brawling currents of this big river.
This closure affected anglers, steelhead guides, and businesses tied to the health of the Deschutes and its fisheries.
“As a destination fly shop, there are groups of people who want to catch steelhead who couldn’t come….we lost the entire John Day River guide season, and most of the steelhead guide days on the Deschutes last year.” Amy Hazel said, who, together with her husband Jon, own and operate the Deschutes Angler Fly Shop in Maupin, Oregon. “This amounts to more than six figures of lost revenue, and it hurts.”
At the outset of 2022, steelhead population forecasts were still discouragingly low. ODFW sought to engage anglers and stakeholders for input on steelhead management actions for a fishery that was expected to remain closed. After the public comment period, ODFW hosted an online meeting in April to present the summer steelhead management program including decision frameworks including the metrics that both temporarily close and open Columbia Basin fisheries, including the Deschutes River.
Since the steelhead angling decision frameworks were finalized, all eyes from the angling and fisheries management communities were (and still are) on the wild steelhead passage over Bonneville Dam. The first passage evaluation period was July 1 to July 31–if a minimum of 9,900 wild steelhead passed over Bonneville Dam, angling for steelhead would open from August 15 to September 15. They did and it will.
Jason Seals, ODFW’s Deschutes District Biologist says the department prioritizes the health of the steelhead population in its decision making.
“We are confident that the sport fishery will not impact the steelhead population,” Seals said.
Steelhead fishing will remain open on the Deschutes River through May 31 of next year if a minimum of 23,100 wild steelhead pass over Bonneville from July 1 to August 31. Not achieving this number will close steelhead angling September 15. Currently, ODFW and longtime river stewards like Hazel think that achieving the minimum of 23,100 wild steelhead is possible.
Decisions on re-opening other Columbia Basin Oregon rivers such as the John Day River, located east of the Deschutes, remain under evaluation through the month of August. The John Day and other rivers won’t start seeing steelhead runs until October and beyond.
Despite the diminishing steelhead numbers in recent years, it is hard to identify any single factor because steelhead behave differently in the ocean than do other species such as chinook and coho salmon. Unlike the salmon, steelhead are pelagic and swim towards the open Pacific. They don’t dive deep and are more effected by conditions in the upper oceanic water column.
The typical Deschutes steelhead spends less time in the ocean than other Columbia River steelhead journeying to Idaho. Most Deschutes River steelhead are termed by fisheries experts as an A-run fish; that is, they return earlier in the season and live in the saltwater for one year, perhaps two, before returning to the river. The B-run fish typically run later in the season, farther up the Columbia River, and stay in the salt for two or three years. Therefore there is more potential for the A-run fish to benefit from a single year of good ocean conditions.
“There are some signs of a better ocean index last year, there was a better forage base,” Seals said. Notable is that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) estimates of the Pacific Ocean conditions off the Oregon Coast in 2021 were the second-best since this monitoring began in 1998. Seals says: “So we see a little more bounce back, better recovery from year to year with the A-run fish”
John McMillan, with The Conservation Angler and one of the country’s preeminent steelhead experts agrees, stating: “I believe the main reasons we saw an uptick this year were better ocean conditions for steelhead survival and cooler spring temperatures during emigration in 2020.”
As for whether this population trend will continue, McMillan believes there is hope.
“We’ve had a cold, high flow summer out here. Conditions in the Columbia were excellent for smolt migration. Lots of snow melt so the river was not clear, which makes it more difficult for predators to see and eat them. And the high flows make the swim easier and faster.”
Glenn Zinkus is an outdoor writer and photographer from Oregon. More of Glenn’s work is at www.glennzinkusoutdoors.com.