Last week's snowfall on Wallowa Mountain peaks was short lived, but the benefits of the late-summer rains are showing in the green hills, cooler rivers and rejuvenated steelhead in the Snake and Columbia rivers.
The return of "normal" summer temperatures this week was a pleasant relief from too-hot and too-wet weather during most of July and August.
Corresponding more to day length than weather, many birds are beginning their fall migration. Locally, swallow numbers have thinned or disappeared in the Wallowa Valley. In the canyons their numbers have diminished and Vaux's swifts are swooping up insects as they move from higher elevations into the canyons on their way to predictably warmer winter climates. Ospreys will follow soon and perhaps the remaining ospreys seen in the Wallowa Valley are birds from further north that are already on their way to Baja or Texas. Turkey vultures, a species that is surprisingly scarce in the Wallowa Valley during the summer, are widely evident this week as dozens of these soaring birds pause in the area en route to southern California for the winter. Following these seasonal visitors soon will be winter residents from the arctic, including the ducks and geese that hunters await, but also rough-legged hawks and uncommon gyrfalcons.
The break in our hot weather pattern two weeks ago, which brought an abrupt fall in water temperatures in local rivers, is finally showing effects this last week with escalating numbers of migrating steelhead in the rivers. In about two week's time the Grande Ronde River water temperature dropped from at least 78 degrees in the upper reaches in Washington to 62 degrees. Predictably, this change in fortune roused lethargic steelhead in the Snake and Columbia rivers and soon increased the daily migration at Lower Granite Dam from a few dozen steelhead on some days to several hundred fish most days. This week's count of steelhead over Lower Granite Dam is similar to the daily numbers crossing the dam last year, except that last year several hundred fish crossed each day during the month of August, while this summer those numbers only showed up in the latter days of the month. Presently, the steelhead count at Lower Granite Dam is about 6,000 fish and about 20 percent behind the 10-year average through August and about 2,200 fewer fish than in 2003.
Steelhead are moving through the Grande Ronde River on schedule, even with warm water temperatures early in August. Bill Vail at Boggan's Oasis said that he knows of three steelhead caught last week in Oregon. Other fishing reports confirm both steelhead and large rainbows being caught in the Grande Ronde within a few miles of the Snake River.
Smallmouth bass fishing continues as a great fishery this week with good numbers of fish downstream from Highway 129 and fair numbers upstream.
Trout fishing throughout the Oregon and Washington portions of the lower river are responding well to the cooler water temperatures. Grasshoppers are the obvious choice during the day and Vail had one report of an angler taking advantage of the caddis and mayfly hatches in the evening with good success.
All of the Wallowa County streams are slightly to moderately above average flow this week, with the exception of the Wallowa River where it is measured above the Lostine River and is regulated by a dam at Wallowa Lake.
These higher flows are benefitting the Wallowa River with cooler temperatures and better escapement for trout which is keeping more trout, and some larger trout, in the canyon section of the river.
The Wallowa River can produce good fishing during the day with such flies as grasshoppers or subdued, brass-colored spinners, but the river is probably most productive in the evening when insect hatches flourish and trout emerge from cover to actively feed.
The Imnaha River has shown less influence from summer rains this year, missing the dramatic changes in water levels, but also the turbid water that occasionally plagues the Wallowa River system.
Trout fishing upstream in the National Forest remains a favorite destination for anglers, according to reports given at Imnaha Store last week. Downriver, a few anglers have found smallmouth bass still holding in the river, some up to 16 inches. During the last week of August smallmouth bass make their annual exodus from the middle sections of the river and may remain in the lower few miles, but become scarce above Cow Creek during September.
Grasshoppers are the first choice for any fish in the lower Imnaha during the middle of the day. Upriver in the forest, trout anglers should have good success with a variety of mayfly imitations, including such basics as Adams dry flies and hares' ear nymphs.
October caddis will soon make their appearance in all of the headwaters and begin their trek down the waterways, following cooling fall temperatures. These insects can create some exciting dry-fly fishing opportunities.
Wallowa Lake is producing "lots of big fish" this week, reports Gina Barstad at Wallowa Lake Marina.
Barstad said the 20-inch rainbows caught over the weekend were picked up with Power Bait and worms but there were many trout measuring in the teens that were caught with spinners as well as bait.
Wallowa Lake Marina will operate through Sept. 18.
Archery seasons opened last month under some of the most promising conditions in the last decade. Intermittent, soaking rains throughout the summer left the forests cool and quiet, but only a small number of archers took advantage of opening weekend and few of those filled any big game tags.
Hunting options available are archery deer and elk as well as bear and cougar seasons with any legal weapon.
Opened on Sept. 1 are mourning dove and blue and ruffed grouse. Dove numbers took their traditional collapse following last week's stormy weather that chased most birds to warmer locations.
Grouse are immune to such paltry weather and are still on the ridge or in the draw where they have been all summer. The outlook for blue grouse from early brood surveys from Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife are that numbers may be lower than last year. The likely culprit is the wet spring, conditions that are traditionally harsh for birds like grouse, pleasant and chukar. Ruffed grouse population information is always uncertain early in the season. It is difficult to sample these birds and the best information about trends for ruffed grouse populations comes from harvest data gathered through wings that are collected from hunters at numerous sites throughout Wallowa County.