A pod of summer steelhead appear to be making their way upstream past Gold Hill, ready to join their early-run brethren in the upper Rogue fishery that can make the air feel a little cooler and the smoke a little less tough on the throat.
The upper Rogue this week transitioned from late-run spring chinook to summer steelhead fishing, an annual rite that ushers in a popular fishery that runs through Thanksgiving.
After a poor showing of largely finnicky spring chinook, the return of summer steelhead is like having an old friend for dinner.
“We’ve been catching them — mostly the smaller ones — but some nice, big hatchery fish, as well,” says guide Charlie Brown.
“With the spring chinook run being so slow, especially for hatchery fish, it’s nice to catch something people can bring home,” Brown says.
Anglers such as Brown can expect to see a large mix of small and large summer steelhead coming early and often to the upper Rogue, which is forecast to teem with these iconic fish this year.
A combination of good water and favorable ocean conditions last year — along with a massive run of halfpounder steelhead last year — anchor a forecast for an excellent season that’s now afoot on the upper Rogue.
“Looking at the numbers, I think it should be a good summer steelhead year,” says Pete Samarin, an Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife biologist who studies the Rogue. “There should be quite a few smaller fish and a lot of larger ones, as well.”
The early-run summer steelhead are one of the Rogue’s grandest curiosities: A combination of wild and hatchery fish that race upstream from May through August toward the upper Rogue’s cool waters just like spring chinook salmon do. And like spring chinook, they linger in waters around Shady Cove for months before spawning time, making them a prime daily target for anglers.
The remainder of the summer steelhead run trickles into the middle and upper Rogue throughout the remainder of the year before entering spawning tributaries in winter.
The early-run fish tend to be some of the smallest and largest of the summer steelhead run, and each for different reasons.
The first-year spawning adults on the Rogue can measure as short as 16 inches, yet most show up around 20 inches — making them one of the smaller spawning steelhead in the Pacific Northwest.
That’s because of their unique halfpounder life-history — found only in Rogue and Klamath basin steelhead.
After leaving the Rogue as smolts in the spring, about 95 percent of wild summer steelhead return to the Rogue in late summer and fall to spend the winter in the river before returning to the ocean in the spring at around 15 inches long. Those that turn around and head back to the Rogue for their first spawning run that next fall are those smallish adults.
Netting surveys at the Rogue’s Huntley Park gravel bar estimated last year’s halfpounder return at 202,687 — the highest since 2000 and only the third time since 1995 that halfpounder estimates eclipsed 200,000, ODFW records show.
Many of those will show up as first-year adults this year.
“There should be quite a few of those smaller steelhead,” Samarin says.
Also, good winter water conditions and ocean conditions likely triggered good survival of spawned-out salmon, called kelts, last winter, Samarin says.
Unlike salmon, steelhead can survive spawning, and those that do can survive long enough to grow to 10-plus pounds.
At Cole Rivers Hatchery, technicians release hatchery female steelhead stripped of their eggs, so virtually all big hatchery summer steelhead in the Rogue are females.
“Those fish should be doing pretty well, so this year there also should be more bigger females in the river,” Samarin says.
Of the Rogue’s salmon and steelhead, summer steelhead are widely considered the most friendly fish to anglers.
Aggressive biters, they’ll fall prey to roe and worms, plugs, pink jigs and plastic worms, streamer flies and nymphs. All are fair game during the early run until Sept. 1, when the upper Rogue returns to a flies-only show through October to limit harassment of spawning chinook salmon in and around feeding steelhead.