Thursday, January 30, 2014

Dismal Alsea Winter Steelhead Season

For the first time in several decades not a single Winter Steelhead returned to the North Fork Alsea hatchery in December. As of January 29th, less than 300 have returned. The 20 year average for January returns is 936. Ty Wyatt, fishing guide and Director of the Alsea Sportsman's Association, responded to the early hatchery return data by predicting this year's run is "dismal at best" and possibly the "single worst return of Alsea Winter steelhead ever." The ebb and flow of return numbers is based on a lot of different factors. Weather patterns, water levels, number of smolts released, predation and harvest all play a factor in how many fish actually return to the hatchery.

Water levels peaked in mid-January and have been on a steady
decline for several weeks in spite of light rains.
The typical question of "How Many?" is becoming replaced with "Why so few?" Weather patterns have likely affected this year's returns as Oregon endured it's fourth driest year on record in 2013. With only one significant rainfall in January and a continuation of the dry weather trend, it is possible that many of the fish could be holding in lower parts of the river waiting for more rain to push upriver. Fish holding in deeper water could be attributed to a hatchery program designed to increase the success of anglers by planting smolts downstream rather than releasing them directly from the hatchery. The intention is for these fish to imprint on the lower river and linger in this area longer upon returning as adults. Last year marked the first returns from this program, but the overall return numbers were still below average.

Russell Wright with a late January Alsea Native Steelhead
Recent rains have brought more fish to the hatchery, but by comparison, the numbers are still very low. The historical data shows February returns as only slightly higher, roughly equal to and much lower than January's numbers. Returns of wild steelhead on the Alsea have been low for the past few years as well. Fish will continue to make their way back to the hatchery during March and possibly into April. However, at this rate, predictions for a record low year of hatchery steelhead are imminent. On a positive note, the lowest return numbers in the past 13 years were followed by the highest return numbers the following year. Also, during extreme low water years, steelhead may not even enter the river choosing instead to remain at sea until the next year when better conditions may favor their reproductive success. Better luck next year?

This piece was published in the February 6th issue of the Corvallis Advocate:

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