Wallowa County Outdoors: The feel of spring pays early visit to county

Mac Huff

Spring officially arrives on Saturday, but it feels like spring arrived last week. We're not finished with snow this season, but it's nice to have the old stuff out of the driveway. Every year is different and this year the snow that remains in the Wallowa River canyon still surprises me when I've just left snow-free Joseph, which is at almost 2,000 feet higher elevation.

The snowpack in the Wallowa Mountains continues to lag behind average, approximately 10 percent shy, but the rest of the Grande Ronde basin is slightly above 100 percent. Early this week the Aneroid SNOTEL site reported 68 inches of snow on the ground with a loss of 10 inches of depth through melting and settling during the week. Mt. Howard recorded 45 inches of snow on the ground with five inches of depth lost during the week.

Skiing is alive and well at Ferguson Ridge Ski Area and for back country enthusiasts.

Fergi's snowpack is holding up well this winter and the slopes remained completely covered last weekend. The area's spring snow conditions were hard snow at the opening and softening to corn snow for the afternoon by noon.

Next week's Spring Break schedule at Fergi is on hold until the weekend. Eagle Cap Ski Club will wait to see how snow conditions are and the level of interest among skiers and snowboarders this weekend before they make a decision about operating all or part or none of the vacation week. Check with Wallowa Outdoors for next week's daily operating schedule.

Fergi Fest is now scheduled on Saturday, April 3 and will combine the club's Old Timer's Day with the traditional Fergi Fest events of Lawn Chair Race, Ski Golf and the permutations of Tucker Down Hill races.

The Old Timer's Day observance will include movies, slides and stories from the early days of Eagle Cap Ski Club.

Black Horse is scheduled to play music Saturday evening and a pot luck barbecue gets underway at the end of the ski day.

STEELHEAD FISHING

Time seemingly ran out last week for steelheaders as warm weather raised water levels in all of the northeast Oregon rivers. Creel statistics suggest that, thanks to abundant fish, the catch was not blemished to the extent that might be expected.

The mild warming trend during the last week raised the Grande Ronde River from about 3,000 cfs to slightly more than 6,000 cfs, a transition that, while discouraging to fishing, usually spells the end to catching. The daily water cycle on the lower river, says Bill Vail at Boggan's Oasis, is for the water to be medium brown with about a foot of visibility in the morning and then clearing to light brown with a couple feet of visibility in the afternoon. Catching continues throughout. Last week's creel survey shows an average catch rate of six hours per fish on the Grande Ronde River in Washington with interviewed anglers landing 103 hatchery and eight wild steelhead during the three days of survey. At the same time Oregon anglers averaged 10 hours per fish, landing no hatchery fish and four wild steelhead.

During March and April the vast majority of anglers along the Grande Ronde River are gear fishermen using roe and shrimp with corkies and bobber and jig setups.

Steelheading anywhere is a fickle sport. Vail reports that on Saturday a small crowd of anglers landed 60-plus fish. Sunday's crowd was smaller and virtually disappeared by late morning when the wind picked up, he says, and on Monday there were few anglers on the river and the only report was from a pair of anglers where one hooked six and landed three while his novice friend landed one steelhead during the day.

The Wallowa River produced slightly better results, averaging 5.3 hours per fish with anglers landing 103 hatchery and four wild steelhead during three days of survey. No anglers were interviewed at Rondowa last week. The Wallowa River fishery currently offers some opportunity for fly anglers, with some very good days, but the majority of the anglers are using gear, particularly drifting corkies with roe or nightcrawlers.

The Imnaha River produced a catch rate identical to the Wallowa River with a nearly-identical total number of fish, but only 27 hatchery fish were landed while 78 "wild" steelhead were reported. These statistics are skewed toward the "wild" component, however, because of releases of unmarked hatchery fish, so the true hatchery component is higher than reported. Gear angling is the predominant methods here, too, with the present high water limiting the fly fishing opportunity.

SPRING BEAR TAGS

Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife had more than 880 tags left after February drawings for 2004 spring bear hunts. These tags exceeded the number of applications received and went on sale on Monday on a first-come basis at license agents statewide.

Locally, youth tags only are available in the Wenaha, Sled Springs/Chesnimnus, and Minam/Imnaha units. Hunters applying for these tags must be between the ages of 12 and 17 and must be accompanied by a non hunting adult. There are 29 tags available in the Wenaha Unit, 20 tags in the Sled Springs/Chesnimnus and eight tags remain in the Minam/Imnaha unit.

Spring bear tags allowable for adults are available in the Wilson/Trask and SW Oregon units. The Wilson/Trask unit has 99 tags available and there are 728 tags remaining in the SW Oregon unit.

These leftover tags may be purchased by hunters in addition to any general season or controlled hunt bear tags that they may already possess. These tags are available to nonresident, but still fall into the three-percent limitation on sales.

These tags must be purchases from a license agent, and there are no mail order or fax orders being taken for leftover tags.

WILDLIFE NOTES

As sure as the melting snow in your yard is a sign that spring is coming, the arrival of swallows in the Wallowa Valley this week is proof positive.

Blue birds have been in Wallowa County for more than a week as have Say's Phoebes and spotted towhee. A traditional harbinger of spring for many, the American Robin, has certainly increased in numbers in recent weeks, but barely qualifies because robins remain in the county year around.

Active nesters at this time include great-horned owls, which likely are feeding chicks, two nests of bald eagles, one at the head of Wallowa Lake and one near Wallowa. Experienced red-tailed hawks are claiming nest sites and some may be laying eggs by now, but this species will have pairs establishing nests until June.

The plentiful herds of elk along the Wallowa River from January and February have followed the melting snow up the slopes to higher benches and are not as readily observed along the river this month. A sure bet to find an elk this week, however, is among the dozens of deer presently residing on the east moraine of Wallowa Lake.

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