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High-water steelhead

SHADY COVE — The upper Rogue River is flowing at a rather menacing 7,000 cubic feet per second, but its emerald color is an inviting alternative to the caramel surges common throughout most of this winter, so what would normally be a morning off the water turns into a fishing day.

At a nondescript slot of water downstream from the Takelma boat ramp, Jeff Barnard casts a fluffy yarn ball armed with a heavier than normal chunk of lead. After a few ticks on the bottom, the offering stops, and a fluorescent winter steelhead with the yarn ball protruding from the side of its mouth rockets skyward.

"Not your standard spot to hook a steelhead," Barnard says.

But spots like this have become the standard this winter steelhead season on the Rogue for adaptive anglers needing to change locations and tactics to catch steelhead in the lion of winter that is 2017.

The combination of seemingly perpetual rainstorms, heavy tributary runoff and stout water releases from Lost Creek Lake have created the most challenging and limiting winter steelhead-fishing conditions in at least six years, forcing anglers to reboot their memories to what works best in marginal angling situations.

"High-water fishing is a whole different ball game," says Bill Urie, a veteran Medford fishing guide.

"I had to dust off the old archives to see where I used to fish in high water," Urie says. "And there's still fish there."

The first big difference between high-water and normal-water fishing is that the migration of winter steelhead into the upper Rogue is likely to be later than in regular years.

"It's definitely slowing them down this year," says Pete Samarin, a fisheries biologist for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife who studies Rogue fish and their movements.

For instance, the returns of hatchery fish to Cole Rivers Hatchery are normally one-third or more of the total run by the end of March, according to hatchery return data. But in 2011, the last high-water winter, slightly less than one-fourth of the run had reached the hatchery by then.

While the drop in flows after rain events triggers steelhead to move, constant high flows slows their upstream movement, so expect more success in April than March this year, particularly if you know when and where to go.

With high water the new normal, focus more on clarity than height. The eyeball test is best, but it's not always an option when planning a trip. If you can't see the water before you go, do some math instead. While Tuesday's flows were at 7,000 cubic feet per second at Dodge Bridge, 4,500 cfs of that was clear water released from an already swollen Lost Creek Lake, making good water clarity a predictable bet, because almost two-thirds of that flow was clean lake releases.

Most of the winter steelhead caught in high water are landed as the flows are receding and either in migration lanes or resting spots. That means the inside turns of gravel bars close to the bank are premium spots to target.

Eschew traditional steelhead slots, because most feature water too swift in these conditions. Focus instead on traditional salmon-fishing slots where flows are slower than main channels.

Driftboat anglers can expect good success with colored plug lures wiggled in migration lanes, but you better carbo-load beforehand.

Urie says he's more likely to side-drift yarn balls and roe than fish with plugs during high water.

"I don't want to row that hard," he laughs. "It's tough to stop your boat."

High mainstem flows also mean more flows in tributaries. That allows wild winter steelhead to move early and often into spawning creeks and seed streams farther up in their systems than in conventional water years.

Just as droughts are bad for fish but good for fishing, high-water years are good for fish but not for fishing. 

"It's good for the fish," Urie says. "Good escapement. The fish need a break once in a while, too."

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

A small winter steelhead is released Tuesday on the Rogue River near Takelma County Park. [Mail Tribune / Jamie Lusch]