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Highs and lows of the Rogue's peak flows

Flows in the Rogue River will peak some time this morning after the new year's first significant winter storm hits the reset button on virtually every aspect of the Rogue's fish and the people who stalk them.

These storms that spike flows in rivers are called "events," and they bring change to everything from salmon and steelhead abundance to who fishes for what, where — even altering what gear flies off tackle-shop shelves and what bins go untouched.

The good, the bad. Yin and yang. Myriad upticks and downturns are happening now as flows start to drop in the Rogue and life on the river as you knew it last week is no more.

Some changes are big, some are small; some obvious and others more esoteric. Every event has its upsides and downsides.

UPSIDE: Middle Rogue steelhead angling. This week's freshet will act like a steelhead magnet, drawing winter steelhead that have been hunkered down this past month in the lower Rogue waiting for better migration conditions.

"Those fish destined for higher in the river will head up to Grants Pass," says Todd Confer, an Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife biologist in Gold Beach.

That means the start of the winter steelhead season in the Merlin and Galice areas. Bank anglers will hit places such as Whitehorse Park, Griffin Park, Ennis Riffle and Carpenter's Island for their first shot at fresh winter fish.

DOWNSIDE: Lower Rogue steelhead anglers. Sorry, dudes. Josephine County's gain is your loss.

UPSIDE: Future spawning chinook salmon. Roiling waters in tributaries flush much needed gravel into the mainstem Rogue, creating new and better salmon-spawning habitat.

It's a huge benefit in the upper Rogue River, where the placement of Lost Creek dam has blocked the natural creep of gravel downstream, providing fewer areas for chinook to dig nests and lay eggs amid clean gravel with water flowing through it.

Streams like Big Butte and Elk Creek are important gravel sources for the far upper Rogue, where the vast majority of wild spring chinook spawn. And for next year's spawning spring chinook, gravel is good.

DOWNSIDE: Spring and fall chinook eggs and sac fry now incubating in the mainstem Rogue.

The spike in flows tends to scour out some of these nests, sending the eggs and sac fry tumbling downstream to their deaths.

The projected peak flow early today is about 8,000 cubic feet per second at Dodge Bridge near Eagle Point. Compared to a mild winter with no peak flows, the upper Rogue would see a 30 percent reduction in the production of wild spring chinook fry, says Tom Satterthwaite, an ODFW biologist researching the Rogue for more than 30 years.

Given that the wild spring chinook stock is considered depressed, that's a significant loss that will impact future wild spring chinook returns, Satterthwaite says.

But the loss is less because of Lost Creek Dam. During a similar but smaller freshet Dec. 31, the peak flows at Dodge Bridge were about 3,000 cfs, but it would have been double that without Lost Creek Dam reducing peak flows by capturing some of that runoff in the far upper Rogue Basin, Satterthwaite says.

"That helps mitigate other negative impacts of Lost Creek on spring chinook in the Rogue River," Satterthwaite says.

The impacts are less in the Grants Pass area, where the majority of the Rogue's fall chinook spawn.

With a peak flow of about 15,000 cfs estimated for Grants Pass, Satterthwaite estimates a 10 percent reduction in fall chinook fry production verses a mild winter.

UPSIDE: Black lure and yarn sales. Steelhead anglers know the adage to use dark colors in dark water.

Steelhead anglers using roe need to add dark corkies and dark yarn to their offering.

"What we recommend to people is darker colors, even black yarn," says Dave Bradbury from Bradbury's Gun and Tackle Shop in Grants Pass. "It casts a different shadow in dirty water."

That applies to plugs as well, Bradbury says.

"The Bagley with the black body and silver flakes is probably the hottest plug in high water," Bradbury says. "In high water, they sell out."

DOWNSIDE: Fly sales.

Fly-fishing in high and turbid water is usually a bust for winter steelhead in January, but single-egg flies will eventually be popular during lower and clearer conditions.

"No one touches the flies until February or March," he says.

UPSIDE: Summer steelhead migration. Wild steelhead will shoot far up tributaries to spawn in what amounts to ideal conditions for them.

DOWNSIDE: Any remaining hatchery summer steelhead bolt into Cole Rivers Hatchery, leaving the upper Rogue all but temporarily devoid of catchable steelhead.

UPSIDE: Unlike salmon, steelhead can survive spawning, return to the ocean as so-called "kelts" and come back next year as bigger and better fish. About 40 percent of second-run summer steelhead survive in the Rogue, and about 30 percent of the third-year spawners survive, becoming those 10-plus pound fish so prized by anglers.

DOWNSIDE: Kelt loss. At flows anticipated today at Grants Pass, an estimated 5 percent of summer steelhead kelts won't survive. No one knows for sure just why, but Satterthwaite believes it is a combination of getting stranded in side channels during rapid flow drops or added stress from rougher water conditions.

UPSIDE: Bank fishing. Not just fishing from the bank, but even driftboat anglers will do better to avoid the main channel and fish right up against the shore.

Winter steelhead will be hanging out in high-water spots not often fished in standard water conditions. Focus on near-shore water three to six feet deep until the river flows start to drop and clear more rapidly.

That's when it's time to focus on riffles and tail-outs, intercepting migrating steelhead until the next event hits the reset button once again.

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