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New year, new era for wild steelhead

A winter steelhead is released on the Elk River. [Jamie Lusch / Mail Tribune]

Anglers stalking winter steelhead in the Rogue River and other Southern Oregon streams will begin a new era Sunday by helping pay the way to ensure the region’s wild steelhead remain one of the country’s healthiest stocks.

The new year brings on the start of a new $2 validation atop the annual fishing license to cast for winter steelhead annually in the Rogue, Chetco and other South Coast rivers.

Also, South Coast anglers who wish to take part in one of North America’s last opportunities to take home a wild steelhead must buy a new South Coast wild steelhead harvest card.

Those will cost $10 for residents and $20 for nonresidents. But the vast majority of the region’s steelhead anglers who don’t kill wild steelhead will not need to buy the tag to fish.

Both the validation and wild steelhead tag are in addition to the annual angling license and harvest tag already necessary to fish these and other species on South Coast streams.

Adopted last summer by the Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission, the new fees will help fund research and monitoring of wild steelhead populations and harvest on these rivers as outlined by ODFW’s new Rogue-South Coast Plan to govern steelhead management in these rivers.

The steelhead validation is needed to fish Dec. 1 through April 30 on any stream from the Winchuck River north to Elk River north of Port Orford. These streams all are part of the new steelhead management plan the Oregon Legislature required ODFW to draft after myriad public vetting the past two years.

The change comes amid clashes between different angling and conservation entities over whether the region should remain one of the only areas anglers could kill wild steelhead or whether they should be protected before their populations become imperiled.

State biologists project the validation and tags could raise in the program’s first year about $80,000 toward monitoring efforts to shed better light on wild winter steelhead health in these streams, how many fish are taken home and what impacts harvest levels have on spawning populations.

So far the agency has hired new spawning-grounds survey crews and creel census collectors on the lower Rogue and Chetco rivers.

The early data show far more anglers appear to be willingly releasing the wild winter steelhead they catch here despite rules that allow them to keep one per day and up to three per year.

New estimates show the highest wild winter steelhead harvest rate for the region is in the lower Rogue, with 10.3% of the run kept by anglers, according to ODFW. The Chetco’s harvest rate is estimated at 6.2%, statistics show.

Unlike the Rogue and Chetco, the Elk River has no hatchery steelhead component and estimates are 1.7% of the wild steelhead returning each winter are kept legally by anglers.

The regional steelhead validation is the first Oregon has adopted since 2014 when a similar program went into effect to fund work in the Columbia River Basin.

The new tag and validation are now available to buy online as well as at Point of Sale license outlets that still offer paper licenses and tags.

Elsewhere, the new year brings a new prohibition on anglers keeping rainbow trout over 20 inches long on the Deschutes River from Lake Billy Chinook to Benham Falls. That came with a new companion ban on wild trout harvest in Fall River, a Deschutes tributary.

New developments for 2023 include an easing of some restrictions on northeast Oregon’s John Day River to ensure some angling opportunities during fishing closures for hatchery steelhead.

The new rule will open angling year-round on the John Day for bass, catfish and other warmwater fish. Under previous rules, these fisheries have closed when the river closed to steelhead, salmon or trout fishing.

Mark Freeman covers the outdoors for the Mail Tribune. Reach him at 541-776-4470 or by email at mfreeman@rosebudmedia.com.