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A quick fishing story...

I had a small window of time to fish yesterday between the time I got off from work at 5pm, until 7pm, when I'd need to leave the river for my men's bible study. Of course I'm always prepared for any opportunity to fish, so my waders, rod, reel, and flies were already in my car.

I got suited up and hit my fav little run. I started a bit higher than usual, just to be sure to cover all the holding water. I made casts and extended each one until I got my Rage head and nine strips of running out as my working length of line. I had just started stepping down and a rise came to my #6 purple/black LW. The size of the rise said steelhead to me. This steelie actually made a second grab at the fly on the same swing before the skater settled at the dangle. I made the same cast and the steelhead came up again and missed. I made another cast and the steelhead came up yet again and this time it had the fly. The line came tight and I held on, feeling a few headshakes, anticipating the reel to bark and any moment. Instead, the fly popped out of the fish's mouth, fish off. I was disappointed that I missed an opportunity.

I figured that there was no way that fish would come back after feeling the hook. However, I remembered a story told by my friend Mark Stangeland, of a steelhead he hooked/landed after it had previously come to his fly and pulled 10' of line from his reel. I thought, well, anything's possible. I took a few steps upstream and reasoned that if nothing else, another steelhead might be laying near that one I hooked into. As I got back to the zone, another rise came! The steelhead missed the fly again - same fish?? I got the idea to pull one more strip of line before making the next cast and I would hold a loop and release it if the steelhead came to the fly again. The next cast went out and in the same spot, a steel form came up and I was ready - the loop was dropped and the line almost immediately came tight as the steelhead made it's first run. Hey, this loop dropping thing can actually work! The steelhead gave a spirited battle despite the absence of reel melting runs as she fought mostly in close.

I managed to get this beautiful hen to the bank and as I reeled in to get a hold of her, for some reason I thought to be sure her adipose was missing as she was such a perfectly formed fish. To my surprise, this steelhead had an adipose fin! I got a few photos and by the time I was done, she set off on her way with a flip and as she swam off I noticed a blue tag near her dorsal, probably indicating she had made it to the hatchery at Dexter and been recycled downstream.

After landing this steelhead, I went back up and started in again. With only five strips of running line out, another steelhead came up for my skater, in water I had already covered. This steelhead came back after the fly multiple times and several fly changes could not put this player on the hook, but lot's of fun nonetheless. I was immensely pleased with the abundance of action in the small window if time that I'd had.

It is believed that non-finclipped summer steelhead on the Willamette are either "misclips" or feral offspring of hatchery parents that have successfully spawned in the wild. I tend to entertain the possibility that these "wild" steelhead are remnants of a run that had been there all along. Why would there never have been a wild summer run on the upper Willamette??

So, I just got a "wild" steelhead on the Willamette - a hatchery fishery - and just last week, while fishing with our own Matt Zilliox, I got my second hatchery steelhead of the season on the North Umpqua fly water - a wild steelhead fishery. By the way, the number of hatchery steelhead taken in the NU fly water seems alarmingly high, with a guide telling me that anywhere from a third to half of the summer steelhead hooked/landed there each season by him and his clients are hatchery steelhead.

"Wild" Willamette Steelhead:




Hatchery steelhead on the NU:
 

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Great read and cool pics.

Steelheads are a determined bunch of beautiful creations.

Thanks for posting.
 

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Fantastic post Todd !!
You got me all giddy about waking flies now .
Can't wait to give your wakers a try this fall :)


Mike
 

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Do it Mike, I waked up a fish on the Rogue with a tan and green wang on monday. It really wasn;t a waked fish as much as a dead drift fish. I put a cast to the far bank under trees and right before the fly began to swing and wake it was blasted by a small hatchery buck. he was later seasoned and grilled.. so now I have 2 Rogue River fish, both on waking flies. :razz:
 

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It is believed that non-finclipped summer steelhead on the Willamette are either "misclips" or feral offspring of hatchery parents that have successfully spawned in the wild. I tend to entertain the possibility that these "wild" steelhead are remnants of a run that had been there all along.
there is now stronger genetic evidence that the Willamette system does not support a remnant population of wild summer steelhead. The link to the science has been posted elsewhere.

a perhaps more intuitive and phenomenological (non-scientific) way of thinking about this is to ask: why would wild springers be found by scientists (as they have, despite their less flexible life history), but wild summer steelhead would have eluded detection (despite their more flexible life history and adaptive range of environmental tolerance)? If only one of those two species would have survived the changes of the past several hundred years, it would have likely been the steelhead. Their apparent absence is telling.

[another more speculative possibility is that there was a wild summer run (for example, sustained by unusual sequences of water years), but it was never much more than ephemeral and small, and therefore not sufficiently robust to develop a clear and unique genetic identity - fed by summer strays mixing with wild winters - and never a robust and distinct run]

I have no dog in this fight, just keenly interested in the same question, and have actually changed my thinking on this issue over time as new information has reduced the likelihood of some explanations being true
 

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Discussion Starter #6
Guys:
Thanks for your comments.

Rodney:
Gotta agree, love when those steelhead are determined and aggressive to the surface.

Mike:
Hope you find some Salar that like weird flies surfing across the top!! You're welcome for the fly and have a great trip.

Matt:
So cool that you wanged a Rogue steelie!! Let's fish!

Steve:
Thanks for providing the link to the genetic studies, will look at it more closely when I can. Yes, I am also curious about this matter as well and continue to ponder over it.

Best regards,
Todd
 

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Where is the link showing there is no evidence for past wild summer steelhead. I know what ODFW has to say, but I have heard stories from old timers who insist they saw steelhead before the stockings started. They could just have been mistaken, but I am starting to think they were right.
 

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Awesome story Todd! I'm fairly certain I know the run, as I know I've seen you there before many times when I thought I'd get it to myself haha
Keep it up man!
 

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Awesome story Todd! I'm fairly certain I know the run, as I know I've seen you there before many times when I thought I'd get it to myself haha
Keep it up man!
Hey Matt, is that you with the older Toyota sedan?? If so, you've beat me to it the last few times! Next time you see me there, stop by and say hi and we'll do some fishing. Are you living in this area now?? I know when I fished with you a couple years ago, you were still in high school and living down in Medford??

Todd
 

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summer steelhead

I too have pondered the lack of native summer steelhead in lower Columbia tribs. It is worth noting that among anadromous salmonids, summer steelhead are oddballs. Not only are they iteroparous, they can be in freshwater as adults for almost a year. I ask, "What is the evolutionarily adaptive strategy benefit of being inland so long?" Were they to stay at sea until a couple of months prior to spawning they could presumably grow larger and produce more eggs - increasing their likelihood of success. For those summers heading to Idaho, the EAS might seem obvious - they have to swim 1000 miles to spawn and that takes time. But, that does not truly tell the story. Sockeye make similar migrations over a couple of months - and steelhead are stronger swimmers. Also, it is known that many Idaho steelhead spend months cooling their heels in the Deschutes, then rush upriver near the end of winter. So, its simply hard to understand why summer steelhead developed the spawning traits they now display. My inclination is to suggest that summer steelhead evolved this reproductive strategy when they spawned way up the Snake - around the Thousand Springs area, before European settlement and the advent of dams, when there were massive floods in the lower river that would have made it tougher to get to their spawning grounds if they migrated closer to their late winter spawning/early spring spawning season. They then began colonizing the lower river - mostly upstream of where winter steelhead thrive. It is worth noting that summer steelhead may have a slight competitive advantage over winters in that their fry emerge a month or so earlier, get a head start, and possibly outcompete winter fry for space and food. Their failure to colonize the Willamette may be due to Willamette Falls that likely limited access to the upper basin to the high flow winter months.

Even though the summer steelhead run the Willamette is almost entirely a hatchery product - they sure are a ton of fun. Every March (yes, March) I look forward to that first summer of the season. Nice fish 808, even if it was an unclipped hatchery fish - and congrats on getting it to eat a waker.
 

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One of the greatest features of Steelhead is their diverse life history and their genetic diversity that they possess. What makes them so tenacious and able to overcome so may different limiting factors is that diversity. We don't exactly know why some fish adapted for summer return and others for winter return, or why some adapted for specific rivers or not. Obviously Idaho and other Snake river tributaries played a part in this. Snake River fish migrated all the way to Nevada before the hole Snake River complex was put in. This amount of migration requires a summer return. But in other areas closer to the ocean, this diversity overcomes a lot of limiting factors and ensures species survival by having fish return throughout the year, rather than selected for single periods of time. Chances are is that there are some limiting factors that prevented the WIllamette from developing a summer run in the past, low summer flows and WIllamette falls was mentioned. This could be very much the case. That said the genetic and life cycle diversity is what has allowed these fish to survive despite man's best effort to drive them to extinction.
 

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Steelhead23,

This is a bit of thread drift, so I hope 808 doesn't mind.

Summer steelhead as a race don't make much sense since, like all rainbow trout, they are spring spawners. Summer runs appear to have evolved where the environment allows the summer run life history to succeed where winter runs cannot. Winter steelhead are not successful very far upstream of Bonneville Dam because the Columbia River and its inland tributaries run around 36*F in the winter, or colder. That is just too cold for steelhead to migrate, so they would never travel the required distance to colonize and reproduce in the mid or upper Columbia tributaries or Snake River and its tributaries. Summer steelhead enter the Columbia mainly from June through September when the water temperature is warm (almost too warm!), so the fish reach their natal streams in the early fall. Since the advent of the dams, most of those fish now arrive and over-winter in the Columbia or Snake near natal streams that they can easily reach and ascend when the temperatures begin to rise slightly in February or March, prior to these fish spawning in March through May, or sometimes later.

Summer steelhead in the lower Columbia tributaries, like summer steelhead in most coastal streams, evolved to exploit habitat that exists upstream of barrier falls. Winter steelhead could ascend those falls in warmer water temperatures, but for the most part, they can't at winter temperatures. So the barriers create a spatial separation between winter and summer steelhead spawners.

If you notice, there are barrier falls on the lower Klickitat, the Wind, Big White Salmon, Washougal, EF Lewis, and Kalama. These falls are passable when water flow and temperatures coincide with steelhead migrations. So summer steelhead runs developed in these parts of each of these rivers.

Puget Sound rivers with native summer steelhead runs also share the trait of physical barriers to migration that steelhead can pass only when water flow and temperatures are favorable.

And then there are exceptions. And I have no good explanation for those. On Washington's coast, the Hoh and Queets Rivers have native summer steelhead populations that apparently have always existed and are not separated from winter steelhead by physical barriers. So there we go. It's always good to have a head scratcher.

Now, getting back to the Willamette, my limited understanding is that Willamette Falls was historically a migration barrier, EXCEPT during the spring runoff of the Columbia River. During that time period, the high water of the Columbia would back up the Willamette far enough that Willamette Falls became passable during the period of high water. This allowed passage by spring chinook, but not fall chinook, and by later winter steelhead, but not summer steelhead. I would be interested to know more about the history of the Willamette and its native fish populations.

I thought you might find this information interesting and useful.

Sg
 

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Discussion Starter #14
Steve:
Don't mind the thread drift at all, in fact I like it.

I continue to puzzle over the seeming absence of a historic native summer steelhead run on the Willmette above the falls, even with the genetic study that SSpey (the other Steve) provided. I especially puzzle of this when I am fishing up here from early spring through late fall - it just seems like perfect summer steelhead water around here. Why would spring salmon and late winter steelhead have been able to ascend the falls but not summer steelhead?? I wonder why there was never a run of "springers" (very early return summer steelhead) like on SW WA streams such as the Wind, Washougal, EF Lewis, etc??

I'm just so glad that I can get my local pellet heads to grab skaters every now and then, especially since the upper Willamette (an McKenzie) are right in my back yard. I just can't stop fantasizing about my homewaters being filled with perfectly formed native summer runs!!

Todd
 

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Todd,

Some of the SW WA rivers, EF Lewis and Kalama that I know of, did have "springer" steelhead, very early arriving summer steelhead in April and May. As the hatchery programs expanded, the tail of the early side of the run timing curve included early returning hatchery summer runs. And as usually happens when both hatchery and wild fish are being fished on in the same time and places with no restrictions, the early wild fish were over-fished.

As best I understand the historical passage issue at Willamette Falls, the Columbia River spring runoff backwater made the falls passable in May and June. So an early timed native summer steelhead could seemingly have colonized the river and established runs. Most lower Columbia River native summer steelhead had peak run entry timing of July, so they would have missed the passage window of opportunity. But enough of those fish migrate in June, it seems like early summers would have had a better shot at colonization than late winter runs. I wish I knew enough to understand more.

Sg
 

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Discussion Starter #17
Steve:
I agree, the absence of wild upper willamette summer runs will continue to puzzle me.

Paul:
Thanks, can never get enough of surface steelhead grabs on my homewater, even wild steelhead of questionable origins.

Best,
Todd
 
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