Wallowa River steelhead fewer but bigger

<p>Charlie Gillis of La Grande was trying out his luck fishing for steelhead on the Wallowa River Monday afternoon. Although Gillis didn't catch any steelhead that day, earlier this season he caught two steelhead fishing on the Snake River.</p>

For those who anxiously await spring fishing for steelhead in the Wallowa River, 2013 fish data are providing both bad news and good news.

The bad news is that the gradual and then sharper decline in numbers of steelhead returning from the ocean since an off-the-charts year in 2009 continues on a downward trend.

The good news is that, in an unexplained reversal from previous years, the number of 2-salt fish returning to the Wallowa River from the ocean this year is far greater than the number of 1-salt fish returning.

By way of explanation, a 2-salt fish has traveled from its fresh water origins to the ocean and remained two years before making the arduous trip back inland, while a 1-salt fish returns after only one year in the ocean.

A few steelhead already have arrived in hatcheries on the Wallowa, and the annual run, though slower, has begun. Oregon Department of Fish & Wildlife assistant fish biologist Kyle Bratcher, based in Enterprise, projects the peak of the 2013 steelhead run in the Wallowa River will arrive between mid and late March.

Bratcher says there’s a significant difference in size between a 1-salt fish and a 2-salt fish. The former, he says, normally run between 23” and 25” in length, while 2-salt fish are “healthier” and average between 28” and 31” long.

Bratcher says the normal ratio of returning steelhead is 60-70 percent 1-salt fish, and 30-40 percent 2-salt.

And yet in 2013 that trend has reversed itself, and about 75 percent of steelhead now returning to the Wallowa River are of the larger variety.

Fish biologists and scientists have learned much over recent years about steelhead, and also about Chinook salmon, but many mysteries remain. Among them is their inherent tracking devices that allow them to return to their home spawning grounds.

Some things that are known about local steelhead include:

• About 500,000 steelhead smolt are released annually from Wallowa Fish Hatchery, in Enterprise.

• About 300,000 steelhead smolt are released annually from Big Canyon Hatchery, northwest of the city of Wallowa.

• About 215,000 Imnaha River steelhead smolt are released annually from Little Sheep Creek Hatchery.

• Less than 10 percent of these smolt are pit-tagged before leaving a hatchery, allowing their location to be tracked electronically.

ODFW employs one full-time person each on the Wallowa and Imnaha rivers to calculate steelhead fishing success rates. By asking three basic questions of each fisherman interviewed, the average number of hours spent fishing to land one steelhead is determined. ODFW expresses that finding as a ratio.

Earlier this year when creel checks were made near Troy, on the Grande Ronde River (the Wallowa River empties into the Grande Ronde), that ratio was calculated at 10 hours per steelhead. Bratcher says that ratio last week along the Wallowa River was 20 hours per steelhead, and he anticipates the figure to dip to 10 hours per steelhead and even lower in March.

In 2009 the ratio in the Wallowa River was down to three hours per steelhead and so many steelhead were in the river that the daily catch limit of three steelhead was upped to five.

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