Welcome to Eye of the Guide

Part Eighty-four



Northwest Anadromous Species

By Peter B. Hiatt, Sisters, Oregon


Here in the Pacific Northwest, one thing we have a lot of on our coasts is...RAIN! The amount varies but 70 inches per year on the coast itself is perhaps average. Part way up our small coastal ranges get perhaps 140 inches. That all comes down river and there are very few dams. As a result, the earth is leeched of nutrients. Grasses, salal, and fir trees do very well on this, but fish in nutrient-free rivers do not. This may be the reason for anadromous fish. These fish like salmon, trout, stripers, shad, and others spawn and spend part of their youth in fresh and semi-salt water but spend the majority of their lives in the sea with its much higher nutrient content. When they return, we have superb fishing for sea run cutthroat, sea run browns (Northern California mostly), sea run rainbows (steelhead), and five varieties of salmon.

coastal river

If our Fish & Game Departments have done one thing right, it has been to expand the runs of these fish. Fall runs of salmon and Winter runs of steelhead were once the norm with a few rivers blessed with other seasons. We now have significant Summer runs of steelhead in most rivers. These Summer run fish often wait until next Summer to spawn giving us year around steelhead in some rivers. The Spring salmon runs have been expanded, and we now have a new Winter run of Chinook salmon on the Trask River which is expanding naturally to other rivers. These fish really do not compete with the other fish in coastal rivers as most of these rivers have few year-around fish. This is a much truer statement in short coastal rivers than longer ones like the Rogue and Umpqua which originate in the further East Cascade range and have cut their way through the coastal range. These longer rivers run through areas East of the leeched out coastal range and have greater nutrients which allow for year around species in abundance. Tributaries of the Columbia River which begin East of the Cascade range are in a desert/semi desert region which are extremely high in nutrients and have fabled names such as The Deschutes, John Day, and others. These rivers have incredible runs of anadromous fish and healthy local populations as well.

N. Santiam

As a result, we in the West have extremely complex fish regulations with a great mixture of seasons and bags even on the same river. It has become quite important to know the difference between species and to carry a measuring devise and regulations booklet.

Spring Salmon usually start in about March with May and June being the usually hottest months. This is the Chinook (King, Tyee) fishery for the most part. Ocean season starts in June and continues on into the Fall season with the rivers getting hot in September and October for Coho (Silvers) and Chinook and Chum for the most part. Some more Northern areas get large runs of Pinks and Sockeyes.

Sea Run Cutthroat start in Mid Summer and get hot in September. They have also earned the name "Harvest Trout" for this seasonal reason.

North Santiam June Steelhead

Then there are the steelhead:

Traditionally, Thanksgiving is the beginning of the Winter steelhead run. This is a near religious experience in the Northwest. The most common regulations allow two steelhead per day and 4 per week to be kept. Only hatchery (adipose fin clipped) may be kept. When runs are of extreme size, some river's regulations may be changed mid-year to allow 3 or even 4 fish per day. Size varies greatly. Some rivers have a run of "half pounders." These will run 14-18" on the average. The Rogue River is famous for these. Some Summer runs may average 6 pounds and some years (like this year), they may be much larger with the North Santiam averaging 12 pounds this year. 20 pounders are a bit unusual to be caught as most will break off, but they are out there. The Snake River run is of large average size with weights in the high 20's not unusual. The record is in the 50 pound range. Not many of these would be landed even if numerous fish were hooked.

Fast water

Oregon Fish and Game do not want hatchery fish to reproduce. As a result, the hatchery fish that go into the fish traps were clubbed and thrown away. When this became public knowledge, the upheaval caused the state to change their ways. Now the fish are "recycled" by transporting downstream numerous times allowing fishermen additional chances to take them home. One hatchery on the coast plants them in a small local lake producing wild fishing for a time.

Sharing the resource

I cannot stress enough the importance of reading the rather thick regulations closely. There may be different regulations covering 4 different areas of one river. There may be numerous salmonoids running in a river at one time. There may be different regulations for each. The regulations provide visual examples of each type. Regulations may be changed mid-year usually allowing larger bag limits. Checking with local sport shops is always a good idea.

Waiting for the swing

Fishing an unknown river always puts the fisherman at a disadvantage. A site like FAOL sometimes has information on individual rivers which can be of great help. (Check the Great Rivers section). Fish-Ins can be of great help. Then there are guides, sport shops, local Fish & Game people, local FAOL members and publications. The state provides information on the yearly take from each river so you can judge the strength of each run. There are popular patterns listed in numerous places including the Atlantic Tying section in Ronn Lucas' series of articles on this site.

Halcyon on the N. Santiam

General knowledge of fish habits is very important. Salmon tend to run in the center of rivers. Fast stream flow seems to be unimportant to them. On the other hand, steelhead like to run against the bank cut off the first drop off in the stream. Steelhead also like water running about quick walk speed in 2-6 foot of depth. Early mornings and late evenings often find both species in major holes. Many Western streams are crystal clear which allows sight fishing. Summer steelhead may stay a year in fresh water before spawning and take on the characteristics of normal trout. Rocks, logs, undercuts, areas of oxygen concentrations in very hot weather are all good spots to fish. They will be feeding on the same food as the local trout and even taking dry flies. The difference is that these trout will go 6-25 pounds and there will be a lot of them. A large bank caught fish even with 8-12 pound line may take 45 minutes to over an hour to bring in depending upon water conditions.

What to Use

This varies from river to river and species to species. Again, you can look in the usual places as discussed before. Generally, salmon like larger flies, but the 71 ˝ pound record chinook taken last year on the Rogue River in Oregon was taken on a drabbish #10 fly meant for "half pounder" steelhead. My personal choice is to use bright colored flies when close to the ocean, and a bit darker when more inland. Steelhead that have been in the rivers some time and have started to feed on natural river foods, usually gain a preference for darker patterns. Leeches with marabou movement gain in popularity. The oranges, reds, yellows that are so effective on the coast give way to purples and other dark colors…even dry flies. Flies are more effective in brighter and larger sizes when water gets cloudier. Sometimes (especially with upstream fish), there may be special colors in a given month of year that are especially effective. Normally, I use a #4 size for steelhead. However, some regulation require a larger hook to prevent trout and juvenile steelhead or salmon from being taken. I now use a #1 on the North Santiam for this reason. Be sure to read your regulations and measure each hook as there is no agreement between manufacturers on hook size. An example of many different steelhead and salmon and sea run cutthroat patterns may be seen in FAOL at: atlantic/hairwing/ Typical tying instructions for a hair wing pattern can be seen at: Skykomish Sunrise.

Halcyon on the N. Santiam

Use what you have. However, there are some rough guidelines. Big fish on light rods can be exciting. However, I think most will agree that an 8 weight 9' rod is a good choice for steelhead. This also works for salmon but a 10 wt won't hurt for them. You will need some good backing, too. You will see lots of your backing. A large diameter reel is a help, and if you are lucky enough to have one of the few multiplier reels out there, better yet. You may be dabbing over sight fish next to the bank, or you may have long casts to get into the best water. This varies tremendously from location to location. Rivers may be huge, swift, and open or small and brushy. Virtually all rivers in the Northwest have one run or another of steelhead. I like 15-20 pound backing. I use WTF floating lines as the fish are not usually too deep and it makes for easier casting. I weight the flies accordingly. A false roll cast lifts the heavier flies so they are closer to the surface for a normal cast. No split shot is allowed in Oregon, but weighted flies are OK. Many like dark jigs and some heathens also use spinning gear and bobbers. I have extreme dislike for losing a 20 pound fish to a knot, so I use as few as possible. I use straight 8 pound leader usually (Maxima Chameleon) but this year have changed to straight 12 pound as the fish are averaging larger. No sissy tippet with the extra knot for me. The closer you are to the ocean, the less important the size of the leader.

As always, the most important thing is to keep your fly WET! ~ PBH


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