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Halfpounder heaven

GOLD BEACH — Andrew Wells dug his wading boots into the soft gravel at the lower Rogue River’s Huntley Park, looking for traction against an unusually heavy load.

Wells and his compatriots were dragging a seine through the river like others have done for decades, but these hauls were unusually heavy.

Hundreds of halfpounder steelhead 13 to 15 inches long clogged the nets in numbers not seen in years, requiring hours to measure and log each of these little beauties.

“It’s one of the best days I’ve had in five years, and it was impressive,” says Wells, an Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife fisheries technician.

Wells’ impressive day on that gravel beach Aug. 16 has become a bellwether moment for Oregon anglers waiting for a shift in what has been a dearth of salmon and steelhead returns to Oregon rivers.

Photo courtesy ODFW ODFW staff and volunteers pull a seine through the Rogue River at Huntley Park to capture and count returning salmon and steelhead, including halfpounder steelhead.

The near-record haul of halfpounders at Huntley Park may be the first indicator that poor ocean-rearing conditions that have plagued salmon and steelhead survival in recent years have turned the corner.

Halfpounders on the Rogue are an unusual critter among West Coast steelhead populations, heading to sea after two years in freshwater only to turn around after a few months and head back into the Rogue for a full fall and winter before returning to saltwater.

So their strong return could be the first sign that ocean survival is on the rise — and that would bode well not just for this year’s angling but for steelhead catches in a few years.

“The ocean seems to be turning,” says ODFW fish biologist Pete Samarin. “The numbers of halfpounders are smashing the 10-year average. Doubling it. And we’re net even done.”

Add to the mix that Columbia River coho salmon numbers are forecast to hit 1.7 million this year, and the early data suggest good things to come.

Like Rogue halfpounder steelhead, Columbia coho are a gauge of ocean survival rates off the Northern Oregon coast and beyond.

Together, they hint that future salmon and steelhead returns to Oregon rivers could bounce back from poor returns blamed largely by biologists on dismal survival rates in the ocean once young salmon and steelhead leave freshwater.

The counts so far at Huntley Park rival 2000’s record estimate of 238,000 halfpounders, as well as a string of great returns in the late 1980s

Don’t fall in love with the numbers. They can be, however, a solid index on the relative health of Rogue steelhead populations, because this year’s halfpounders usually mean strong adult returns for the next two or three years.

“I’ve been telling people these are some of the best numbers I’ve seen since the late 1980s,” says Jim Carey, who checks the pulse of lower Rogue fishing from his Rogue Outdoors Store at the river mouth in Gold Beach.

“It creates hope, and creating hope is important in the world right now,” he says.

Halfpounders are about more than hope on the Rogue. The halfpounder life cycle is unique in the Northwest to steelhead in the Rogue and Klamath rivers. These young steelhead leave the Rogue in spring as 6-inch smolts, then turn around in August and September to head back into the lower Rogue as 12- to 15-inch fish that weigh close to what their name implies.

They cluster in schools and often migrate as far upriver as the Galice area, all the while aggressively eating underwater insects. Then, in March, they migrate back to the sea. Most come back later that summer as first-time spawning adult summer steelhead, while the rest return as winter steelhead roughly from December through March.

This life-history trait allows for greater steelhead survival rates because life in the Rogue is safer than in the ocean. However, trading ocean feed like krill for smaller in-river insects means Rogue steelhead tend to be smaller than their counterparts in nearby rivers like the Chetco or Elk.

Gargantuan Rogue halfpounder counts usually mean good adult returns in the immediate future, decades of data show.

Since the 1970s, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has paid ODFW to survey for fall chinook salmon returns in the lower Rogue to help set future recreation and commercial salmon-fishing seasons offshore.

Each Monday, Wednesday and Friday, crews conduct 15 net sets at Huntley Park, counting, measuring and cataloging everything they catch.

The halfpounder counts are a tangential blessing, because they yield so much free data on Rogue steelhead.

So far, the raw counts are just shy of 200% of the 10-year running average, and that’s the standard comparison used in estimating fish runs.

“The steelhead this year are looking really big and healthy,” says ODFW fish biologist Steve Mazur, who oversees the Huntley Park seining program out of his office in Gold Beach. “They’re really big, fat summer steelhead.”

Reach reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470, or email mfreeman@mailtribune.com.