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Low and slow

State fish biologist Pete Samarin wades into the shin-deep waters of the Applegate River at Jackson Campground and glances upriver toward one of Oregon's most productive steelhead factories.

The gravel spawning flats average 70 egg nests, called redds, in less than a mile amid some of the Applegate' more popular and productive fishing stretches.

"Steelhead are not dense spawners," says Samarin, from the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. "That's probably the highest density in this state for spawning wild fish."

But those wild steelhead, and their hatchery brethren, might not get to this stretch of the Applegate, at least during the two months remaining in this stream's fishing season.

Record-low rainfall has left the Applegate as low as it's been since Applegate Lake was created 34 years ago, threatening to knock out the river's popular winter steelhead fishing season this year.

Low flows have kept winter steelhead from moving out of the Rogue River into this main sub-basin and dispersing throughout their normal haunts — popular not just for steelhead but also for those who stalk them.

Tributaries such as Forest Creek are dried up, meaning natural streamflows are far less plentiful than normal for late January.

Compounding the problem is Applegate Lake is more than 29 feet below its normal late-January level, leaving virtually no stored water to help ease flow woes and boost the Applegate's volume enough to attract steelhead and anglers.

Under an agreement with state fish biologists and hydrologists, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on Wednesday dropped the reservoir releases at Applegate Dam to 80 cubic feet per second — 20 cfs below the project's minimum flows for wild salmon and steelhead protection.

The plan is to reserve as much water as possible to ensure high and cool enough flows this summer to protect wild fall chinook salmon and winter steelhead that hatch and rear in the Applegate this year.

It's the ominous choice of choosing fish needs over fishing wants, which happens in the Rogue Basin during drought conditions, the likes of which haven't been seen here since the early '90s.

"It's a classic fishery/natural resource issue," says Russ Stauff, the ODFW's Rogue watershed manager. "When it gets down to it, it's tough to take the short-term hit. But we got to protect the resource."

Steelhead are tough critters, and they'll shoot up the Applegate when spawning time comes, low water be damned.

But that could be as late as early May, well after the March 31 sunset for the river's winter steelhead fishing season.

"Odds are, they'll show up late when the season's closed," says Dave Bradbury at Bradbury's Gun and Tackle shop in Grants Pass. "If they don't release any water, we'll miss the best part of the season, if not the whole thing."

The Applegate's reputation as a top-drawer winter steelhead fishery draws anglers from throughout the West, particularly fly-fishermen who find the confined stream one of the rare places where casting flies for winter steelhead is as productive as traditional bait fishing.

It not only boasts a healthy wild population protected by required catch-and-release fishing, it also has a hefty return of fin-clipped hatchery steelhead to make up for lost wild steelhead spawning habitat blocked by the building of Applegate Dam in 1980.

But it has its challenges. The run peaks in late March or early April, so the best potential fishing is shut off to protect wild steelhead spawning in the same stretches walked by anglers.

The river flows primarily over private lands and it is not designated as navigable, so much of the bed and banks lie on lands blocked to public access. Also, there is no fishing from a floating device, so anglers face trespass tickets if they drift the Applegate in small rafts and step out onto private property to cast.

That makes the lands around Jackson Campground important to both fish and anglers. The land is part of the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest, so it's open for easy wading access.

But this stretch is heavily influenced by dam releases. Flows won't be increased until the lake bulges back to its regular filling schedule — something only intense rains can do — which may not happen during the two months remaining in the season.

ODFW wants to store as much reservoir inflow now as possible and release it this summer to ensure Applegate water temperatures remain under 70 degrees and encourage better wild salmon and steelhead survival.

In essence, it's choosing fish survival over fishing opportunities — a mantra Rogue Basin anglers are familiar with in drought conditions like these.

"In the long run, you always have to think about the survival of next year's fish, and the year after that and the year after that," Samarin says. "The long-term goal is to ensure there are plenty of wild fish returning to this river."

Samarin's not ready to give up on this year's angling season.

There are enough tributaries feeding the Applegate that flows can jump naturally to the flow levels that steelhead anglers are used to.

The Applegate Basin is known as a flashy one, capable of triggering vast and quick upturns in flows.

Even strong flows from just two main Applegate tributaries — the Little Applegate River and Williams Creek — can wash away the low-water ills.

But historic rain patterns don't favor February and March rainstorms — something anglers will need before the Applegate's popular winter steelhead fishery gets on their radar screens any time soon.

"It'll be interesting to see what happens," Samarin says. "If we get a whole lot of rain, we can get a whole lot of fish up here just from tributary flows. Or not."

Reach reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470 or mfreeman@mailtribune.com. Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/MarkCFreeman

Low and slow