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A steelhead run for the history books

When it comes to catching early-run summer steelhead on the upper Rogue River, Gold Hill guide Charlie Brown is no blockhead.

He caught more than a dozen of these denizens by mid-July this year, which is when he normally switches to steelhead stalking after three months of chasing spring chinook.

"They've been really nice steelhead," Brown says. "The smallest we've gotten is 25 inches.

"They're real aggressive fish," he says. "They've been running, jumping, doing flips. They're fun."

They're also earlier and more plentiful now in the upper Rogue than at any time in recorded history.

So what if recorded history only goes back to 1984? Never since that year, when Cole Rivers Hatchery workers started counting early-run summer steelhead, has there been more summers reaching the hatchery's collection pond this early.

The 839 adult steelhead captured at the hatchery by July 14 this year is one-third higher than the previous record for that day — 620 fish in 2004.

That year, incidentally, is the last time summer steelhead returns to the hatchery topped 7,000 fish.

By Thursday, the hatchery counts had soared to 1,036 adults. Add the 500 excess steelhead recycled last week from the hatchery back down to Gold Hill, and this year's run contains well over 1,000 reasons to say goodbye to spring chinook and hello to summer steelhead.

"Usually I'm not starting summer steelhead fishing until the end of the month or the beginning of August," says Gold Hill angler Steven Theel, who joined friend Phil Tripp on a float trip Monday from Gold Hill to Valley of the Rogue State Park.

That stretch normally fishes best during low-water conditions in late fall, but the duo hooked five steelhead and boated three after launching at 5:30 p.m.

"One was 7 pounds, one was 8 pounds and the smallest was 4 pounds," Theel says. "And the two we lost were taking us downstream. They were definitely big fish, too."

Big fish are always part of the Rogue's early run of summer steelhead, a rare critter among coastal anadromous fish.

Summer steelhead adults spawn in winter, and their progeny head to the sea as smolts in the spring. But the vast majority turn around and return to the Rogue in mid-summer as immature "halfpounders," a life-history trait present only in the Rogue and Klamath River systems.

They turn around and return to the sea in early spring, with most of them coming back the following summer as first-year adults, and they are welcomed with open arms by anglers tired of rising at 3:30 a.m. to catch those finicky spring chinook.

"They'll hit in mid-day," Brown says. "You can go out in mid-day when it's sunny and you can find them in the shady spots. And there's definitely plenty of them out there now."

Improved ocean-rearing conditions and the recent removal of Savage Rapids and Gold Ray dams from the Rogue have largely been credited for the recent upticks in fall chinook, spring chinook and winter steelhead. But the good early run of summers belies that.

The best predictor for summer steelhead returns are halfpounder estimates, which are based on regular netting surveys at Huntley Park near Gold Beach. And last year's halfpounder run was a dismal estimate of 36,374 fish — almost one-third of the historic average and the fifth worst since the netting program began in 1976.

"In general they track, but they're not tracking now," says Todd Confer, an Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife biologist in Gold Beach. "The early returns to Cole Rivers are definitely encouraging, but I don't have a good explanation for that."

The answer, however, may lie within those halfpounder counts.

The Huntley Park seining project targets mid- and late-run summer steelhead, of which 98 percent make halfpounder runs. Among early-run summers, only two-thirds make halfpounder runs. Instead, they remain in the ocean feeding on krill and growing at greater rates than bug-eating halfpounders.

That's why the early run is loaded with a mix of 19-inch steelhead that were last year's halfpounders and a set of bigger fish 4 pounds and up. Those non-halfpounder steelhead likely had better ocean survival rates than in past years, and they are fueling this primo early run now present in the upper Rogue.

But be careful about making any predictions based on it.

In some years, good early returns to the hatchery occurred amid poor overall summer steelhead returns, and vice-versa.

So anglers should enjoy what they have now and leave it at that.

"I'd hate to say anything like this is going to be a killer run because it could fall on its nose," says David Pease, the hatchery's interim manager. "But what we've got so far are really nice fish."

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