Wallowa County Outdoors: Steelhead reaching into Wallowa, Minam rivers

Wallowa County Outdoors: Steelhead reaching into Wallowa, Minam rivers

No new snow during the week leaves only one prime topic for this week's report and that is steelhead fishing. The lack of precipitation so far has had little downside for steelhead anglers and has kept rivers continuously fishable during most of February.

The snow pack in the Wallowa Mountains ranges from about half of normal to slightly more than half for the two SNOTEL sites above the Wallowa Valley. Water conditions in the rivers, however, reflect a slightly more dire situation. The Grande Ronde River, at 1,000 cfs, is flowing at about one-third of average flow for the end of February.

Anglers might anticipate that the lower water levels this winter could slow the migration of steelhead upstream in the rivers toward spawning grounds, but that doesn't seem to be the case. With occasional small spates during February, and turbidity in the water for cover, the fish seem to have continued their migration on schedule.

During the last week of February the Wallowa River catch rate shows a substantial improvement, corresponding to the timely arrival of steelhead at Minam last week. Low, clear water in the Wallowa River may seem like a detriment to steelhead continuing up this tributary, but their arrival during the last week of February is nearly clockwork.

The recent trend for steelheading on the Wallowa River is a statistical slowing of activity, but the five-hours per fish a couple weeks ago brought an influx of new anglers to the river last week and possibly the resulting drops in the catch rate to 13 hours per fish. The Wallowa River is undeniably the most popular destination in the region recently, with significantly more anglers fishing the Wallowa than the Grande Ronde River.

Anglers on the Grande Ronde, however, are faring consistently well and typically turn in single-digit catch rates for steelhead. Oregon has had few weeks during February that were greater than five hours per fish, while Washington anglers' catch rates have varied widely between four and 15 hours per fish. Steelheaders fishing Oregon water have a few more days of good steelhead fishing before these fish move upstream into the Wallowa and Minam rivers and the headwaters of the Grande Ronde River, leaving fish scarce in the Troy area.

The Imnaha River came back in mid-February, after a dismal 49 hours-per-fish catch rate to tally a four-hours-per-fish rate a week ago. There was no creel survey on the river last week, but fishing reports at Imnaha Store suggest that fishing was closer to 49 hours per fish than four hours.

Wildlife viewingSeveral good wildlife viewing opportunities are available in Wallowa County this month. Besides watching deer in your front yard there are wilder prospects throughout the county. A short-term opportunity to see elk is available along the north highway near Snow Hollow Hill where logging operations are attracting what almost seems to be all of the elk from the North End. On the right day more than 100 elk might be loafing near the highway taking advantage of the easy foraging behind the loggers.

At the head of Wallowa Lake bald eagles are spending time at their nest site at the mouth of the river, and there are dozens of deer on the moraine as you drive to the head of the lake. Hundreds of mallards and Canada geese are on the lake and careful observers are likely to find a variety of other ducks mixed into the flock. Elsewhere across the county great-horned owls are incubating eggs and perhaps feeding the season's first hatchlings, while red-tailed hawks are defending preferred nest sites and perhaps laying the first eggs of the season.

In the canyons, trees are budding, birch catkins are growing and sagebrush or early buttercup blooms are making their annual appearance on open, warm hillsides. Gooseberry bushes are beginning to bud and will soon have their first leaves and blooms.

Where water is available, the low-elevation hills are greening up, but an unsettling observance through this pleasant winter is the obvious lack of widespread green up in the canyons where warm weather should be revitalizing the rangelands - except for the general lack of moisture.

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