Brian Winkler holds a 7-pound winter steelhead caught by his son Eric Winkler, left. It was the first steelhead Eric has caught, and it came amid the strongest upper Rogue River return in more than a decade. Photo by Mark Freeman

Fish on!

GOLD HILL — Winter steelhead are known as the fish of 1,000 casts. Eric Winkler caught his first on cast No. 3.

The third time the 20-year-old Jacksonville man drifted a plug down the surface of the upper Rogue River then closed the bail on his borrowed level-wind reel, all hell broke loose.

Moments later, his father Brian Winkler boated his son's first steelhead, a 7-pound hatchery hen that put Eric a full 997 casts ahead of the adage afforded new steelhead anglers, who are told to expect to cast 1,000 times before they hook one.

"I know it shouldn't be this way, but it seemed far easier than I thought," Eric Winkler says.

Anglers across the upper Rogue are getting a warped view of what winter steelhead fishing is supposed to be as a mix of flip-flop weather and flipped-out fish numbers translate into strong winter steelhead catches for those trading rain gear for T-shirts.

The whacky weather and upper Rogue flows below normal late-summer levels are the result of a warm winter that's made for snow woes in the mountains and sun block in April on the river.

But it takes a little more searching to explain the highest returns to Cole Rivers Hatchery in more than a decade, plus plenty of wild steelhead in the upper Rogue despite low flows that normally slow upstream migration.

The upper Rogue, which is home to less than one-fifth of the Rogue Basin's winter steelhead habitat, now sports a mix of hatchery and wild fish. The 1,709 winter steelhead that had entered the hatchery as of last week was the highest total for that date since 2004, when 1,967 steelhead reached the end of the line the fourth week in March.

A popular explanation is that the runs have been buoyed by the removal of Gold Ray and Savage Rapids dams from the Rogue, easing migration to the upper Rogue.

But this year's steelhead run is even more impressive on the Applegate River, where the 1,801 steelhead captured at the trap at the base of Applegate Dam is the highest to date since at least 1990, the first year of available records.

Those Applegate steelhead swam up the Rogue and took a right turn into the Applegate without ever having passed a former dam site.

Anglers have to go back four years to find the likely answer.

In 2011, a hefty snowpack kept Rogue and Applegate tributaries higher and cooler than most years. That created excellent steelhead nurseries that likely created excellent survival rates among that year's wild steelhead, says Pete Samarin, a fish biologist studying the Rogue for the Oregon Department of Fish and wildlife.

"That just frees up so much more rearing habitat for steelhead," Samarin says. "If they have that water in the tributaries, they do so much better."

Coupled with air temperatures Saturday in the high 60s, it was a perfect non-storm for Eric Winkler to graduate from Oregon State University student to steelheader.

On his last hurrah of spring break, he bummed a seat in a family friend's driftboat next to his father but almost didn't get to fill it. Earlier in the week, he fractured his left elbow while skateboarding in a friend's garage.

"Pretty stupid, I know," he says.

Also pretty painful, leaving Winkler to keep the rod in the rod-holder as he let his plug dangle downstream of the driftboat.

The silver and chartreuse plug did its job in the classic High Banks stretch downstream of TouVelle State Park. Winkler then did his.

Holding the rod in his left hand — and often wincing — he winched the fin-clipped hatchery steelhead to the boat. After a few runs, the tired steelhead glided into the net.

An hour later, Winkler did it again, boating a slightly larger steelhead to fill his two-fish tag on his one-day license.

So thanks in part to a cold, wet spring four years ago, winter steelhead fishing is so hot on the upper Rogue this spring that even a one-armed rookie can tag out.

"It seemed awfully easy," Winkler says. "It's not like I really earned it."

Reach reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470 or mfreeman@mailtribune.com. Follow him at www.twitter.com/MTwriterFreeman.

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