Sunday, December 8, 2013

Winter Chrome Dome Season is upon us

Winter Steelhead
Photo by Jorge Rubio
    As salmon season winds down to an end on the nearby Alsea river, the north fork opened December first to anglers patiently awaiting the return of winter steelhead. These large, robust sea-run rainbow trout are well known for their incredible speed as well as acrobatic leaps and jumps once they've been hooked. Last year's hatchery return numbers were lower than usual, but historically, the numbers tend to ebb and flow. On average, early fish show up in December following an increase in water levels from rainfall, but the highest numbers arrive in January and February. When waters are high and muddy or murky, bobber rigged leadhead marabou jigs or drifting pink worms will get down deeper and faster, and provide a more visible target. When water levels recede to low and clear, adjusting to a more realistic presentation can help fool fish into biting. Stick with bright but realistic colors. Much like salmon, steelhead tend to bite on an instinctive reaction to competitive breeding. Salmonids view foreign eggs floating along in the river as opposition to the survival of their own young. Color and scent are the two key factors to triggering bites, and while salmon react mostly to scent, steelhead react mostly to color and sight. There are many different presentations, but drifting corkie and yarn or a bead will give the illusion of a single egg that has wiggled free from a redd, floating downstream with the current. Adding some scent to the yarn can turn on the bite, or make your presentation more noticeable.

     Finding the right holes to fish takes some guesswork, but look for areas of slackwater that end just above falls. Fish moving through fast current will sit at the top of the falls and rest. The choppy current and deeper water at the bottom of the falls also provides cover for the fish from predators above the surface (with the exception of fishermen). As a good rule of thumb, when fishing bobber rigs, you want the bobber to drift upright at about the speed of a walking or fast-walking pace. When fishing drift rigs, you want to find the bottom and bounce along, rather than dragging and snagging.

     Only the adipose-fin-clipped hatchery steelhead can be retained, so if you notice that you've hooked a native fish, take extra precaution not to cause it any harm. Studies have shown that using a soft-thread net, or tailing the fish underwater are the best landing techniques to ensure survival of the released fish. In spite of the "chrome-dome" reputation, steelhead actually have very sensitive skull structure. Because they swim side-to-side, beaching a native steelhead puts the fish at risk of harming itself from banging it's head against the ground. If possible, keep native fish upright or in the water for their own safety. Don't lay them on the bank for a picture, or keep them out of water for very long. If you are retaining a adipose-fin-clipped hatchery fish, you can use this weakness to your advantage by using the force of a blunt object to the head to immobilize the fish so you can remove the hook safely. After your catch is secured, cut or rip the gills. This is not only the best way to ensure a humanely killed harvest, but it increases the quality of meat by removing the excess blood from the flesh, which can spoil much faster than the meat itself.

     Steelhead are known as "the fish of a thousand casts." They are a challenge for even the most experienced anglers. If you put in the time and effort to catch one, you'll soon find yourself counting, "998...999..."

Photo Credit: Colin Walsh

This piece was published in the December 12th issue of the Corvallis Advocate:

Friday, December 6, 2013

Festive Foraging - Deck the Halls with Parasites and Invasive Species.

The holiday season is upon us, and the winter solstice is near, which means that with less hours of sunlight and colder weather, we are spending more time sitting around the fire or on the couch watching television. Going out looking for the right tree might be one of the rare moments you take to get outdoors. However, you can find more outside your door to decorate your home than just a tree. Some of the local hikes like Bald Hill, Fitton Green, and Chip Ross all have holly and mistletoe, which are two other staples of holiday botany. Even better, they are invasive and parasitic species that pose a threat to native plant life, so by removing them, you are doing the forest a greater favor than removing trees.
English holly
English holly is commonly found and sold in local nurseries. Once they have been planted into the urban landscape, they take root and reproduce by fruiting berries that birds like to eat. Unfortunately, the seeds do not fully digest, and as the birds migrate, so does the holly. Once you take to the trails, it will be easy to find, because holly is an evergreen, giving it an advantage over trees that lose leaves in the winter. The ones you find in the woods will not be as neatly shaped as the ones in your neighbor’s yard because they do not get pruned in the wild—unless you volunteer to cut them back during the holidays. Because they are shade-tolerant, and their waxy, prickly leaves are unappetizing to potential predators, they thrive in our forests, choking out light and nutrients to other native plants.
Mistletoe clusters in a hardwood tree
Mistletoe reproduces much in the same way that English holly does. This parasitic plant produces a sticky berry, appetizing to birds, which fly from tree to tree, spreading those undigested berries from branch to branch. Although the plant itself does process light and carbon dioxide through photosynthesis, it also uses a structure known as haustorium that grows beneath the bark, absorbing water and nutrients from the host tree.
It’s important to harvests these pests in a proper manner in order to tread lightly with your planetary impact. When removing English holly, bring a small shovel and a pair of work gloves. The idea is to uproot the entire plant, killing it at the root, before you start to prune your trimmings. Be careful not to mistake the Oregon native plant salal, or Oregon grape, for English holly. If you are caught removing native plants from public land, you can be fined or end up in court defending your poor plant identification skills. When removing mistletoe, bring a pair of nippers. You want to carefully prune the entire infected branch completely, not just the mistletoe itself, in order to keep it from spreading.
Gathering these materials yourself is so much more rewarding than fighting holiday shopping crowds for wreaths made of Styrofoam, plastic, and wire. The mistletoe might even give you as much of an edge towards the end of your next holiday party as the eggnog.

Featured in the Corvallis Advocate Alt. Weekly December 5th, 2013

A revised version of this article was published on the Wide Open Spaces website. To see the revised version, please visit the website:

Fall Salmon/Late Summer Steelhead Run

Fall Run Chinook Salmon
As rainwater from early fall storms flows through the valley and into surrounding rivers, some late summer run steelhead along with fall salmon runs of chinook and coho will make their way back home to spawn. With high numbers of salmon being caught commercially offshore in recent months, the predictions for surrounding rivers look to be bountiful for recreational sport fisheries as well, and lots of anglers have been successful early in the season.
Regardless of where you choose to fish, preparation is key to having an enjoyable experience on the water. Check local weather patterns, and seek out days of clearer weather after long periods of heavy rain. As the rivers rise, they fill with debris creating undesirable conditions for both anglers and fish. When the debris in the river washes out into the bay and the water levels stabilize, that’s when you can expect to find the largest surges of fish moving upstream. When the weather is dry, with enough experience on the water you can begin to time the surges of fish that push upriver during high tides.
Late Summer Run Steelhead
Avoid harvesting fish with dark coloration or open sores, and don’t harass fish that have already made their way through the river to excavate spawning areas, known as redds. Once they reach this stage of their life cycle, they take on a dark bronze to greenish or reddish brown color, with males sometimes showing vivid spawning color patterns. They begin to deteriorate at this point and the meat becomes less palatable or completely inedible. Bright, chrome scales, with attached sea lice or small scars from sea lice are signs of a desirable fish with quality meat. High quality meat will be firm, and have more of a pink-reddish color, while lesser quality meat will take on a lighter shade of peach or white and have a puffy texture that doesn’t hold together well when cooked fresh. Questionable meat is often more palatable when prepared in a slow-smoke process.
This is what "chrome" looks like.
Note the sea lice just above the cadual fin.
Respect the awesome power of Mother Nature by approaching your fishing holes with caution, and be aware that rising water levels also mean dangerously strong currents. Don’t enter private land without consent, make use of public access areas, and know the local laws. Each river has different regulations regarding individual species, geographic deadlines, seasons, use of bait, tagging systems for both native and hatchery fish, and more.
For details, call the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife headquarters at 503-947-6000 or visit

Featured in the Corvallis Advocate Alt. Weekly October 31st, 2013

Mushroom Hunting in the Valley

With rains coming early in the fall and paired with periods of warm dry weather, this season is producing a bumper crop of edible wild mushrooms. Early harvests of sulphur shelf, or “Chicken of the Woods,” along with lobster mushrooms, and the ever popular white and yellow chantrelles are appearing in unusually large numbers. Some pigs ear, bolete, and coral mushrooms are also rising through the substrate of the forest floor.
Chantrelles are perhaps the most widely sought after variety, and there is an abundance of them along the coast range at higher elevations. When you happen upon one, stop and pay attention to your surroundings. It’s not uncommon to trample several mushrooms in one area while overcome with the excitement to pluck the first one you lay eyes on. Look for mossy areas under old growth, evergreen debris, where salal and Oregon grape grow.
While moisture from the rain is key to activating the mcyelium, you will find that some of the mushrooms that are more exposed to the elements tend to deteriorate, become soggy and inedible. The best days for harvesting are during periods of warmer weather after rains have saturated the soil enough that it still remains damp. When the ground is really wet, look underneath the gaps of fallen logs that have made contact with the forest floor. The areas in which the log shields the ground from rain creates a dryer environment that will produce firmer mushrooms that tend to keep longer.
Be sure to use these tips when hunting mushrooms…
-Being aware of your surroundings is vital to enjoying your outdoor experience; keep in mind that’s it’s fairly easy to wander into private property on accident. Check your local regulations on harvesting and entry permits for public lands.
-Do not consume any mushrooms you can not identify with confidence; lots of lookalikes out there have made people pretty sick over the years. A good place to pick up some resources for identification is at our very own Saturday Market.
-If the quality of your find is in question, the general rule of “When in doubt, toss it out” applies.
-While on your hike, keep track of time and your path so you don’t get lost in the woods after dark. If you are unsure about how long your hike will be, bring a headlamp or flashlight.
Featured in the Corvallis Advocate Alt. Weekly October 24th, 2013