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Winters in spring

SHADY COVE — Jeff Barnard knew his Tuesday float on the upper Rogue River could become tough sledding for steelheading, so he brought all his best mojo with him.

Armed with his lucky rod and best plug, Barnard set out to mine the upper Rogue's Betts hole for one of the large, bright winter steelhead that seem to be lacking these days on the upper Rogue.

"This rod catches all the fish," he says.

Sure enough, the rod doubled over. Three cartwheeling leaps and five reel-ripping runs later, the 27-inch wild steelhead came to the driftboat just long enough for a quick pic and a clean release.

"There may not be many fish out there right now," Barnard says. "But the ones that you hit are hot."

Just how hot the upper Rogue's winter steelhead run will become this year shall be defined in the next two weeks, the make-or-break window when upper Rogue anglers either go steelheading or instead wait impatiently for the river's fabled spring chinook salmon to show.

The relatively short winter steelhead season on this upper 32-mile stretch of the Rogue is poised either to peak or peter out before it even gets going.

So far, the season has been quite slow.

The upper Rogue's winter steelhead migration historically peaks in the last two weeks of March and the first two weeks of April. And there are just as many reasons to think they'll show up soon as to fear they won't.

"I'm still thinking we'll see some fish coming up and get some anglers into them," says Dan VanDyke, Rogue District fish biologist for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. "Forty years of data shows this is the peak time. But I always worry that people forget we have this winter steelhead fishery up here while they wait for the spring chinook to come."

The upper Rogue's winter steelhead run always has been something of an enigma.

The main winter steelhead fisheries exist in the middle and lower Rogue, where anglers work over a run dominated by wild fish and complemented by those returning to Cole Rivers Hatchery and the Applegate River.

Winter steelhead show up in the Shady Cove area just as the tanning season begins. T-shirt weather just doesn't seem like winter steelhead time.

Also, the upper Rogue has fewer wild steelhead to augment the hatchery fish bound for Cole Rivers, and therein lies the reason to believe this year's return won't suddenly materialize.

This year's hatchery-bound adults were released at Cole Rivers in 2014, when a disease outbreak in the facility's hatch house hit winter steelhead hard. Only 63,000 smolts were released from Cole Rivers and just 70,000 were released at the base of Applegate Dam.

Normal releases are 132,000 smolts annually at each location.

Whatever mix of hatchery and wild fish are headed here could have been heavily influenced by this winter's high water. High water is known to slow migration, which picks up once flows ebb. This year's winter flows were akin to 2011, when the run peaked later in April than normal.

With Gold Ray Dam and its counting station gone since 2010, the only way to track the relative abundance of upper Rogue winter steelhead is by comparing counts at Cole Rivers.

As of Wednesday, 893 hatchery fish have been counted at Cole Rivers, well beneath the 10-year average of 1,316 fish, ODFW records show. It's the worst showing to date since 2011. That year, 60 percent of the run came into Cole Rivers after this week.

VanDyke believes that phenomenon could repeat itself. But whether anglers will regain interest in catching winter steelhead in shirt-sleeve weather remains to be seen.

"It's kind of like Mount Ashland," VanDyke says. "They still have snow, but they're losing skiers. People just think winter's over."

For Barnard, this isn't the winter of his discontent. He caught a hefty 30-inch wild buck Tuesday evening before calling it a day.

"It's not over yet," he says. "As long as I have this rod."

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

A winter steelhead is released Tuesday on the Rogue River near Shady Cove. Mail Tribune / Jamie Lusch