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Year of the steelhead?

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WHITE CITY — The aptly named Susan Fisher flicks an articulated leech into the upper Rogue River hoping to join the growing group of anglers enjoying Rogue River steelhead on the fly.

She took her first spey-casting class a month ago, and her foray Wednesday into the Rogue at the Denman Wildlife Area saw her continue her status strictly as a caster and not a catcher.

“Today was my third day, and I love it, even though my friends and I are novices,” says Fisher, of Talent. “I’ve never caught a steelhead, and I’m really looking forward to it.”

Turns out Fisher picked a good year to take up steelheading on the upper Rogue. Perhaps even the best of all time.

A robust early return of hatchery summer steelhead to Cole Rivers Hatchery is the second-highest in the past 24 years, eclipsing the pace of the 2002 return to the upper Rogue which reached nearly 30,000 steelhead, the highest on record.

Despite relatively low and warm water which generally doesn’t foster early steelhead returns to the upper Rogue, adult fish have steadily bolted into the hatchery collection pond at a rate not seen since 1995 other than once in 2012, and that return to date is just a hair above this year’s returns.

“I don’t see why you’ve had so many fish up there right now, with these poor migrating conditions,” says Pete Samarin, an Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife biologist on the Rogue. “But we do.”

Using early hatchery returns to extrapolate a run of both hatchery and wild fish in an ongoing run isn’t the greatest biological barometer, but it’s the best available since the fish-counting station at Gold Ray Dam disappeared with the dam’s removal in 2010, and seining at Huntley Park on the lower Rogue has barely begun for this year.

But data from past runs at both Gold Ray Dam and Huntley Park suggest such conjecture might not be far off track.

The best upper Rogue runs have occurred one or two years after good showings of immature halfpounder steelhead entering the Rogue in late summer to spend the fall and winter in the river before migrating back to sea and eventually returning as spawning adults.

The 2002 record return of 29,296 summer steelhead to the upper Rogue, for instance, came two years after an estimated all-time record of 238,828 halfpounders passed Huntley Park.

Last year’s halfpounder estimate of 215,063 is the fourth-highest since records have been kept at Huntley Park in 1976, ODFW data show. That return followed 2017’s halfpounder class of 200,848 fish.

Two relatively large halfpounder runs in a row bodes well for this year’s adult returns.

“You do get good adult returns after good halfpounder returns, definitely,” Samarin says. “That’s what the data says.”

The 2002 run also contained a record return of 17,528 hatchery fish, which accounted for 60 percent of upper Rogue summer steelhead that year, Gold Ray Dam counts showed.

That was higher than the 10-year running average of 53 percent but down from the 75-percent levels of the early 1990s just after the ban on keeping wild steelhead went into effect in 1991.

So big returns of hatchery fish this year could foreshadow similar returns of wild summer steelhead, based on Rogue data.

On top of that, the run grew Friday by 1,153 adult steelhead, which is how many excess steelhead were released back into the Rogue at TouVelle and the wildlife area, the second such release of “retread” steelhead already this season.

That all bodes well for seasoned steelheaders and new ones to the fold such as Fisher.

She has caught a salmon in Puget Sound and trout in area lakes, and she says she has long wanted to learn to fly-fish.

Her husband signed her up for a class at the Ashland Fly Shop with noted casting instructor and competitor Leslie Ajari of Medford, and it included on-the-Rogue instruction at the wildlife area near White City.

She bought a wildlife area parking pass, got a free key to the locked gate there and has ventured to its waters two other times with chances at success.

“I’ve actually lost three, but I believe I would have gotten one if not for a problem,” Fisher says.

That day, the river at Denman was boiling with steelhead, “and, man, they were nailing them all around me,” Fisher says.

“Three guys got six steelhead — Bam, Bam, Bam — just like that,” she says.

Perplexed, the frenzy stopped and she reeled up her line.

“I had a broken hook, so I couldn’t get one even if they tried,” she says.

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470 or mfreeman@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter at @MTwriterFreeman.

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Jamie Lusch / Mail Tribune Susan Fisher, of Talent, casts for Steelhead on the Rogue River at Denman on Wednesday.