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Steelhead of summer

Mail Tribune photographer Jamie Lusch snapped his reel spool tight to send his plug lure diving down in front of the driftboat when almost instantly a 10-pound summer steelhead leaped skyward with that shiny plug in its mouth.

After several long runs, three more jumps provided jpeg moments that will make memories for Rogue anglers such as Lusch, and leave Portland anglers longing for their steelhead season that wasn't.

The Columbia River Basin and other Oregon coastal rivers are mired in terrible steelhead returns, blamed on drought and poor ocean conditions two and three years ago. But the Rogue's early season is already trending above the 10-year average and is shaping up to be a fine summer run.

And the reason boils down to a single word: Halfpounder.

The Rogue summer steelhead halfpounder life-cycle trait — the trait that creates smallish steelhead compared to those on the Deschutes and other Columbia Basin streams — gave this year's run a respite from the harsh ocean conditions of 2014-15 that whacked Columbia returns to near-record lows.

The extra time Rogue summer steelhead spent in freshwater beefed them up to better withstand the harsh ocean to which they returned, giving them a fin-up on other fish and making 2017 the summer of steelhead on the Rogue.

"It's one of these evolutionary advantages of halfpounders," says Pete Samarin, an Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife biologist researching the Rogue. "They're cool."

Summer steelhead are relatively rare in Pacific Northwest rivers, where winter steelhead are more common.

Steelhead generally spend two years in freshwater before heading to the ocean as smolts, and they must quickly adapt to predator-prey ocean life, then tough it out for one to three years before returning to freshwater to spawn.

Not on the Rogue.

While Rogue summer steelhead enter the ocean after two years, they turn around and return to the Rogue in late summer and fall as halfpounders, a term based on their 8-ounce bodies.

They head upriver, feeding voraciously on insects through winter, then bolt back to the ocean at about 14 inches long to spend anywhere from a few months to two years in the ocean.

In most years, the halfpounder characteristic creates a popular fall fishery on the lower Rogue through the Wild and Scenic Section, while their diet of insects instead of krill retards their growth rates.

During recent years with poor ocean conditions and drought, fewer smolts made it to sea, and those that got there not only found less food, they discovered they had more necessarily become prey for other, larger species.

While other steelhead slugged it out at a clear disadvantage because of their size, Rogue summer steelhead ducked back into their inland oasis.

"In those years, they're probably getting more to eat than in the ocean," Samarin says. "In the river, they're the top predator."

When they returned as 15-inch fish, they were more than twice the size of smolts that spring, with way more energy reserves to get offshore, find some cool water and get back to the business that is ocean survival.

"All of our fish are going to be tested against these ocean conditions," Samarin says. "But a halfpounder has way better chance of survival than a spring chinook smolt or a steelhead smolt.

"Like I said," he says. "They're cool."

And when on the other end of a line, they're pretty fun.

Lusch's fish finally came to hand but it didn't stay there long. A wild male with sparkling sides and a gun-metal back, it quickly finned to freedom, leaving behind only his jpeg memory.

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

A Rogue River summer steelhead fell for plug near Dodge Bridge last Thursday. [Mail Tribune / Jamie Lusch]