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Early they come

TRAIL — Technician Mitch Semrow had already sorted through close to 200 dark and ripe hatchery summer steelhead from the Rogue River at the Cole Rivers Hatchery collection pond when he grabbed something special.

"It stuck out like a sore thumb, basically," Semrow says. "It had the bulky winter build and it was really bright. Right away, I knew exactly what it was."

The 5-pound hatchery hen was the first winter steelhead of the season to navigate the entire 157 miles of the Rogue and reach the collection pond, marking the official start of the hatchery's winter steelhead collection.

But that was Dec. 30, the earliest a winter steelhead has ever shown its chrome in the hatchery's 41-year history.

"It was so early we had to reprogram the computer, because it didn't allow for a winter steelhead here in December," hatchery Manager David Pease says.

Rogue anglers have plenty of reasons to suspect that early also means often, meaning this year's winter steelhead run could be a banner occurrence.

"That's how we view it," says Pete Samarin, a fish biologist with the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife.

"I think it's going to be a big return," Samarin says. "It'll be interesting to see."

Seeing is believing to anglers like Charlie "Steelhead" Brown, who joined fellow guides Steve Theel and Brady Rogers on a Jan. 8 float down the middle Rogue and boated seven winter steelhead.

That's a good day in the thick of the run, such as late February.

"It's pretty early for them, for sure," Brown says. "I think it's going to be real good."

Along with the wild fall chinook salmon, the Rogue Basin's winter steelhead run is one of its most robust returns, with fish widely distributed and stalked by anglers in the mainstem Rogue and its two major tributaries — the Applegate and Illinois rivers.

The fin-clipped hatchery fish released annually in the Rogue and Applegate rivers join a healthy wild component that makes up anywhere from 70 to 80 percent of the adult returns, according to ODFW estimates.

Most years, steelhead fishing heats up in early February downstream of the mouth of the Applegate, with anglers targeting steelhead bound for that stream as well as others heading past it. February also is when Applegate anglers start casting flies and spoons for steelhead in that river's lower few miles.

Already Applegate anglers have reported catching steelhead in the lower 14 miles up to Murphy Dam.

"That's just crazy," says Samarin, who conducts annual steelhead spawning surveys in the Rogue Basin, including on the Applegate.

But crazy does have some apparent hidden logic to the happy early returns.

Since 2009's removal of Savage Rapids Dam and the demolition of Gold Ray Dam a year later, the mainstem Rogue's two major migration impediments are gone. Before those removals, the first winter steelhead typically reached Cole Rivers Hatchery in early to mid February, records show.

From 2010 to '13, the first fish came a week earlier than that, and last year's first arrival came on Jan. 8, records show. That was the earliest all-time, until Semrow's steelhead beat that by 10 days.

But that doesn't account for the good early showings in the middle Rogue and Applegate — river stretches uninfluenced by the dam removals.

Late December's heavy rains provided good migration conditions for early-run fish. But the Rogue Basin has had plenty of wet Decembers that did not produce early winter steelhead.

"It can't be just the rain," Samarin says. "It's not that there's a bunch of fish each year sitting in the bay waiting for rain. They don't act like that."

One other interesting trend seen on the Rogue and elsewhere is the relationship between salmon and steelhead runs.

Samarin says sometimes when salmon runs are down, steelhead runs are up and vice versa.

Chinook and coho returns were down in 2014, suggesting steelhead returns could be bountiful in 2015.

"Maybe it's that steelhead really are on an upswing," Samarin says. 

The run will ultimately be graded on the wild steelhead spawning grounds on the Rogue and Applegate, where Samarin hopes to see a whopping 20 egg nests, called redds, per mile of gravel bars.

"Until then, all we can go on is how's the fishing," Samarin says. "Time will tell."

Reach reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470 or mfreeman@mailtribune.com. Follow him at www.twitter.com/MTwriterFreeman.

Charlie 'Steelhead' Brown holds up a winter steelhead landed on a Maglip 3.5 on the middle Rogue River. - Photo by Steve Theel