Drayke Fields, left, lands a 5-pound summer steelhead on the Rogue River with guide Brandon Hiatt. [Courtesy photo]
Record fish numbers return to Rogue hatchery
GOLD HILL — Early morning’s light had yet to crest the hills one late May morning when Chris Hacker cast a chartreuse bead into the salmon-loving waters of the Rogue River’s Hayes Falls.
The line stopped with a thud, then a massive tug and the street-fight that landing a Rogue spring chinook salmon from the bank played out.
The bright, 33-inch fish succumbed, and Hacker noticed its clipped adipose fin as that of a Rogue hatchery fish, so he killed it.
“I thought, wow, a dandy,” Hacker says. “That’s a chrome-bright springer.”
But sunrise told a different tale, mainly about the fish’s forked tail.
“Once it got light, an old-timer looked at it and said, ‘That’s a steelhead,’” says Hacker, 41, of Grants Pass. “I said, ‘No way.’ But then I got a good look at it, and it really was a summer steelhead.”
Big summer steelhead are turning heads routine this season as the upper Rogue is sporting one of its best early steelhead seasons in decades.
Summer steelhead returns to Cole Rivers Hatchery through mid-July are the highest in at least 30 years, tripling the hatchery’s early return last year and quadrupling that of 2020, records show.
It’s also well above the 10-year running average of 590 summer steelhead, hatchery records show.
The likely reasons are a combination of a return of very good to excellent ocean-rearing conditions and a wet spring that turned the high-flowing Rogue into a watery highway with a commuter lane just for steelhead.
“Those fish hit the ocean at the perfect time, and they’ve had great migrating conditions this year,” says Pete Samarin, an Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife biologist who works the Rogue.
“It could turn out that a lot of this year’s run just made it up early,” says Samarin. “Or, they’ll keep coming. I think they’ll keep coming.”
Normally, the first summer steelhead run the first 130 miles into the upper Rogue some time in June. Anglers typically start to turn their attention away from spring chinook to summer steelhead in mid-July, with summers getting primary attention in August.
But this year’s run has been so strong that hatchery technicians already recycled 483 steelhead from Cole Rivers back to the Rogue at TouVelle State Park area 23 miles downstream to give anglers a second crack at them.
The Rogue’s early run of summer steelhead typically comes in two forms. Many are first-run adults that measure 21 inches or less; another segment are some of the run’s oldest and largest summer steelhead.
Because Rogue summer steelhead sport a life cycle of more time in freshwater than other Northwest strains, adults are typically smaller than summer steelhead bound for other rivers like the Umpqua.
But many Rogue steelhead are fighting at a different weight class this year.
“So far, there really has been a lot of really big steelhead,” says manager Dave Pease at Cole Rivers, where incoming fish are collected and sorted weekly. “I’d put many of them in the 10- to 12-pound range. For a Rogue summer, that’s big.”
This multitiered combination of returning adults has made for fine fishing days for anglers using steelhead stalwarts from plug lures, baits like worms and salmon eggs to various streamer and nymph flies.
“It’s turned into one of the best times of year for the Rogue,” says guide Brandon Hiatt, who is based in Klamath Falls. “They’re so aggressive you know they’re there because they’ll bite.”
Hiatt’s early season has included several days of 10 steelhead bites, and he fishes almost exclusively plugs.
“There have been very few days where we haven’t had action,” Hiatt says.
One of those days with plenty of action came with Ken Fields and his 11-year-old grandson, Drayke Fields, who together make the pilgrimage from the Fresno area to the Rogue at least once a year.
Drayke caught a 5-pound hatchery summer steelhead, which Hiatt used to give a ‘wet willie’ to the fish-squeamish Drayke before the fish found its way into the Fieldses’ cooler.
“I released four or five other smaller ones,” Fields says. “It was good.
Hacker is also used to action.
A Rogue River native and lifetime angler, he regularly bank-fishes before sunrise, and May usually find him casting for spring chinook at bank-angling meccas like Hayes Falls.
When he caught that mondo-steelhead, he didn’t think twice about analyzing the tail despite the lack of light.
The upper and lower tips of a chinook’s tail point back, while a steelhead’s tail is flat.
“When the old-timer said it was a steelhead, I thought ‘I can tell the difference between a chinook and a steelhead,’” Hacker says.
A closer inspection revealed the telltale tail.
“The tail was as straight as an arrow,” Hacker says. “You could tell it was a steelhead., but really big for the Rogue. Like it was an Umpqua steelhead.
“It’s kind of amazing,” Hacker says. “It kind of gives you hope for the future.”
Mark Freeman covers the outdoors for the Mail Tribune. Reach him at 541-776-4470 or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.