With most of the Grande Ronde and Imnaha steelhead now past the Bonneville Dam, an estimated 2,550 will make it past the eighth and final dam and on to home waters to spawn.

ENTERPRISE — Finally, some good news for Northeast Oregon steelhead anglers — about 40% more hatchery fish than last year are bound for the Grande Ronde and Imnaha rivers.

Steelhead are counted as they swim inland over the eight Columbia and Snake river dams. According to Kyle Bratcher, acting fish biologist for the Enterprise Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife district office, wild steelhead will likely make a stronger showing this year as well.

“It should be noted that predicting wild return numbers is much more difficult than hatchery fish do to a number of unknown factors,” Bratcher said. “However, rough projections indicate they’ll be nearly equivalent in abundance to hatchery fish once they reach the Grande Ronde and Imnaha rivers.”

Bratcher said anglers are likely to catch wild fish, which they will not be able to keep due to Oregon fishing regulations. He gave some tips on how to care for a wild fish and safely release it, if one is caught.

“Minimize air exposure, handle them with wet hands, don’t over play fish, and use quality rubber nets to help these fish reach their spawning grounds,” Bratcher said.

The Grande Ronde and Imnaha rivers are entry ways to rivers and streams where steelhead will eventually spawn in the spring during high water. In the meantime, they will spend time in the rivers, affording incredible fishing opportunities.

With the uptick in fish and possibly anglers, Bratcher put out a reminder that ODFW is working with the University of Idaho and the Idaho Department of Fish and Game on a study looking at the rates that steelhead are encountered across the Snake River Basin.

Bratcher said steelhead are being marked with an orange or yellow piece of plastic tubing near the dorsal fin. Each tag has a unique number printed on the tag. Anglers are encouraged to report those tags to ODFW and select the correct waterbody on the map, or call 833-273-7923.

If the tag includes a monetary reward, the tag must be removed from the fish and returned to ODFW either in person or by mail.

So far, Bratcher said while 90% of the Grande Ronde and Imnaha fish have crossed Bonneville, only a few hundred have crossed the Lower Granite Dam, the last dam on their way inland. He said he expects more steelhead will be entering Wallowa County soon.

“Despite those low numbers we have received one report of a steelhead caught near Troy,” Bratcher said.

In other good news, Bratcher said, the Grande Ronde steelhead season will likely be a little different this year with the addition of coho, a species reintroduced to the Lostine River in 2017.

“While we’ve had a few of these fish caught in the past, this may be the first year we see frequent encounters while angling for steelhead in the Grande Ronde,” Bratcher said. “My hope is that these fish will liven up the fishery during poor steelhead return years and provide anglers with a few more hookups.”

And the fall chinook run may intermingle with their salmonid relatives as well. Bratcher said the fragile species is returning in numbers close to the 10 year average. Bratcher said chinook should be treated just like wild steelhead so they can finish out their lifecycle.

“We currently have a fishery open on the main stem Snake River where you can harvest both clipped and unclipped fish. We will not be offering harvest on these in the Grande Ronde or Imnaha as they’re typically heavy on the spawn once they reach those streams,” Bratcher said.

He added with the mix of fish in the rivers it is important for anglers to brush up on species identification skills.

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