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Early signs point to 'solid' summer steelhead run

SHADY COVE — Lee Wedberg's little prince nymph fly dribbled along a Rogue River riffle in the middle of town, stopping abruptly next to a submerged ledge and signaling the start of another epic Rogue battle.

Wedberg's fly reel started whining as the fish screamed across the river, pulling like a rabid chihuahua before the fight finally waned and the fish came to Wedberg's hand.

It looked like an Oregon steelhead, only smaller.

"I measured him," Wedberg says. "It was 191/2 inches."

Anywhere else in Oregon, that fish officially is a trout.

But on the Rogue, where steelhead are more like William Shatner than Hulk Hogan, it's a true adult summer steelhead and a sign of good times on coastal Oregon's biggest producer of wild salmon.

Fueled by a strong return of smallish, first-year spawning adults, this year's early run of summer steelhead into the upper Rogue is the best in three years and offers the latest signal that poor ocean conditions, which dogged recent runs, have ebbed.

The 3,099 steelhead counted at Gold Ray Dam through July 31 represents the 18th best early showing at the dam since 1966, when the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife started breaking out the early runs.

The returns also are the best since a string of record runs earlier this decade, when the last cycle of prime ocean-rearing conditions also generated record returns of fall chinook salmon to the Rogue.

"This year's early run would look pretty darn good in a lot of decades on the Rogue," says Dan VanDyke, the ODFW's Rogue District fish biologist. "But this decade, we've had some outstanding runs of summer steelhead. We're not at 'outstanding.' But 'better' and 'solid' are words I'd use."

Another applicable word would be "predictable."

Last year's return of immature halfpounder steelhead to the Rogue was estimated at about 119,000 fish, the best in seven years.

Virtually all Rogue summer steelhead make a halfpounder run into the Rogue the year before they make their first spawning run.

So last year's halfpounders are this year's first-year adult summer steelhead, with most running in size from 16 inches to that 191/2-incher that got Wedberg's heartbeat going last Thursday on the Rogue.

"They're fun," Wedberg says. "They're really fun."

And they are really unusual, so much so that the trout-sized steelhead now finning up the Rogue are treated like no other steelhead in Oregon.

Throughout Oregon, steelhead runs are primarily winter runs, with fish that return after spending at least two years at sea bulking up on krill and other big foods that help them pack on size quickly.

Runs of summer steelhead are more rare. Yet even on rivers with summer steelhead runs, such as the Deschutes and McKenzie, the fish share a life cycle similar to winter steelhead, meaning a 25-inch steelhead on those rivers is considered small.

On every other steelhead river in Oregon, every rainbow trout-like fish 20 inches long or longer is legally considered a steelhead. But not on the Rogue, where quantity trumps quality.

On the Rogue, every rainbow trout over 16 inches is considered an adult steelhead. It's an acknowledgement of the uniqueness of these fish — this halfpounder characteristic that leaves them appearing to be sawed-off versions of other steelhead.

"It's a unique situation," says Mark Chilcote, an ODFW biologist in Salem who has worked on Oregon steelhead issues for the past 20 years. "Anywhere you have halfpounders, you'll need that rule. And the only place you have that is the Rogue."

In the Rogue, summer steelhead and winter steelhead smolts head to the sea in spring. Virtually all the summer steelhead and a third of the winter steelhead do something strange. They turn around and head back to the Rogue as 13-inch trout weighing about half a pound.

These halfpounders spend the winter eating insects, not krill, so they add a couple inches before returning to the sea in spring.

Summer steelhead then turn around and return to the Rogue for their first spawning run, measuring 16 to about 20 inches.

Since steelhead can survive multiple spawning runs, each year's return of fish have different ages and different sizes. So the Rogue is home to enough 8- to 10-pound summer steelhead to keep its respect among Oregon streams.

But the most common year class for returning steelhead are the first-time spawners — those fish under 20 inches.

In the past, those first-year adults were killed and kept by anglers as trout even though they were actually steelhead in a smaller package.

In deference to their uniqueness, the Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission in 1989 changed the summer steelhead legal size limit to 16 inches.

In short, it turned these trout into real steelhead. Mocked, maybe, by the guys on the Deschutes, but real steelhead nonetheless.

Just like chihuahuas and Shatner.

"They're just smaller," Chilcote says.

"They're adults, even though they bum around being halfpounders instead of staying in the ocean and growing like they should."

Reach reporter Mark Freeman at 776-4470, or e-mail mfreeman@mailtribune.com.