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Steelhead freeway opened early this year

TRAIL — When Cole Rivers Hatchery Assistant Manager Dave Pease went for a short stroll Tuesday on the hatchery grounds, he discovered that winter has indeed made it to the Rogue River basin.

It wasn't the snow on Mount McLoughlin shaped like an angel that signaled the season, nor the glow of lights for night skiers on Mount Ashland. It was the dozen-plus winter steelhead in the hatchery's collection ponds, easily recognizable by their large, thick and chrome-hued bodies.

"There are definitely winter steelhead in there," Pease says. "There may be 15 to 20 of them in there. And when you compare them to a little summer fish, it's like ... wow."

Getting wowed by winter steelhead in the upper Rogue during January is a beautiful thing, as it signals a sea-change in Southern Oregon fishing opportunities: the largest and healthiest run of Rogue steelhead has arrived.

Last week's relatively mild high-water event was just the ticket the Rogue needed to turn into a steelhead freeway earlier and more effectively than most years.

Winter steelhead stuck in the lower Rogue — mired by more than a month of stagnant flows — were drawn en masse through the Lower Rogue Canyon and into the Rogue Valley over the weekend.

The first decent schools of winter steelhead normally nose into the mouth of the Applegate River near Grants Pass by the first of February, while the upper Rogue typically remains a steelhead ghost-land until mid-February.

But this year marks only the third time in the last 13 years that winter steelhead reached the Cole Rivers collection pond in January, well before even the most ardent angler expects them here.

"I haven't seen any, but nobody's really fishing right now," says Sue Billows, from behind the counter at Pat's Hand-Tied Flies shop in Trail just downstream from the hatchery. "I don't think anybody knows they're here."

And when they're here early, they're usually also here often.

Some of the better overall winter steelhead returns to Cole Rivers have come in years with early runs, which is enough to give optimists a reason to smile. But as far as a being a reliable predictor of winter steelhead run sizes, early isn't foolproof.

It's tough if not impossible to predict the final tally because they spawn from far upper Rogue tributaries all the way down through the Applegate and Illinois rivers and as far west as creeks just outside of Gold Beach.

The best "seat of the pants" indicator is past returns of immature halfpounder steelhead, says Tom Satterthwaite, an Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife biologist, who has studied Rogue runs for more than 30 years.

While nearly all hatchery and wild summer steelhead return to the Rogue as halfpounders just a few months after leaving the Rogue as smolts, about one-third of upper Rogue winter steelhead and about half the Grants Pass-area winter steelhead make halfpounder runs.

Looking back at halfpounder returns two and three years ago gives a snapshot of what to expect from winter steelhead this year, Satterthwaite says. With halfpounder returns at or below average since 2008, adult returns are likely to be average also.

"It's going to be an average run of winter steelhead, and they should be a little larger than average," Satterthwaite says.

Satterthwaite says he's not surprised that winter steelhead arrived at the hatchery almost two weeks earlier this year than last year, and for reasons you probably won't guess.

It's not the recent removal of Savage Rapids and Gold Ray dams, the two largest impediments to salmon and steelhead migration during their reign on the Rogue.

It's warm January rain that brought them home early.

Last week's storm front was what locals call a "Pineapple Express," a storm that develops in the tropics and brings rain that warms the mainstem Rogue, which had been cold and low the past few months with very little migration.

Studies show that water temperatures of 46 degrees or higher at the former Gold Ray Dam site light a fire under winter steelhead, sending these critters finning upstream toward the anglers waiting for them.

Fresh steelhead were seen on the move Wednesday just past the TouVelle State Park boat ramp, and when hatchery workers checked the traps at Cole Rivers Thursday, they found 96 more chrome brights.

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