The steelhead have arrived, and along with them comes a palpable excitement among anglers on the Lower Deschutes.
Each year, the peak of the summer steelhead run reaches Sherars Falls on the Deschutes River in mid-September. While this year's run is not as prodigious as originally predicted, the steelhead have been showing up in decent numbers in the Lower Deschutes, according to Rod French, an Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife biologist based in The Dalles.
The ODFW does not make specific fish-run forecasts for the Deschutes, but steelhead and chinook salmon returning to the Deschutes River from the Pacific Ocean must make their way over both Bonneville Dam and The Dalles Dam on the Columbia River before they can turn south into the Deschutes.
According to French, about 200,000 steelhead are now expected to return to Bonneville Dam this year, down from the original prediction of 380,000. Some 53,000 of those steelhead are the coveted B-run fish, which spend a few extra months in the ocean and can weigh anywhere from 7 to 20 pounds.
“There's fish in the river all the way through to Sherars Falls, in very decent numbers by now," French said this week. “The run is not as good as expected. We expected a fairly robust run. The Deschutes has been fishing good the last couple weeks from the mouth down to Macks Canyon. But it hasn't been red-hot."
On the Deschutes, steelhead — large, ocean-going rainbow trout — can travel all the way upstream to Pelton Dam near Lake Billy Chinook. But according to French, the numbers of steelhead are always greater closer to the mouth of the Deschutes, which for anglers from Central Oregon makes a longer trip farther downstream potentially worthwhile.
“As you go downstream (north), the numbers are always higher," French said. “The Deschutes gets a lot of stray fish, or what we call 'dip-ins.' It's 10 degrees cooler than the Columbia right now. Fish 'dip in' to the cooler Deschutes and then turn around and leave (go back to the Columbia)."
French added that steelhead reach Warm Springs in large numbers by early October.
The size of a steelhead is based on the age class of the fish. One-salt fish (steelhead that spend one year in the ocean) range from about 4 to 7 pounds. Two-salt fish range from 7 to 13 pounds.
The Lower Deschutes includes a mix of wild (native) and hatchery steelhead. French said that hatchery steelhead exist in greater numbers, by a ratio of about 4-to-1. But wild steelhead are often more aggressive and more likely to strike at whatever fly or lure an angler is offering.
“People have a better chance of catching a wild fish, even though they are fewer in numbers," French said. “Our data shows that year in and year out. The wild fish are more eager to strike.
“We encourage people to keep hatchery fish if they catch them, so hatchery steelhead do not spawn with wild steelhead."
French said that the best places on the Lower Deschutes to find steelhead are at breaks in the current, where the fish may stop to rest. They are not typically found in deep holes.
Many steelhead anglers on the Lower Deschutes fly-fish with a two-hand spey rod, allowing them to cover more water than with a single-hand rod. French estimates that 80 percent of steelhead fly anglers on the Lower Deschutes are employing a spey rod.
“Spey rods have become extremely popular," French said. “You don't see a lot of single-handed (rod) guys now. You can cover more water, and they're easier to cast in big winds, a frequent occurrence on the Deschutes."
Still, the ODFW creel suggests that spin anglers have a bit higher success rate for steelhead than fly anglers. French said that spinners, jigs and bobbers can be effective.
In addition to steelhead, fall chinook salmon are arriving in the Lower Deschutes at this time of year, and another big run similar to last year's is expected, French noted. Fall chinook are found in deeper holding water and can grow up to 40 pounds.
“More and more anglers are switching to fall chinook (from steelhead)," French said. “Just numberswise there's been so many fall chinook. But it's a large river. They're not easy to catch once you hook onto them."
Fishing for chinook on the Lower Deschutes is allowed from the mouth upstream to Sherars Falls through Oct. 31.
Steelhead anglers can fish from the mouth of the Deschutes on the Columbia River all the way to Pelton Dam on the north end of Lake Billy Chinook, a stretch of some 100 miles.
According to French, chinook fishing will taper off by mid-October, while steelhead fishing can remain productive through December.
Sherars Falls is by far the most popular spot from which to fish for chinook salmon on the Lower Deschutes. Anglers use a variety of bait to land chinook, including spinners, plugs and salmon eggs. Bait is allowed only from Sherars Falls downstream to the upper trestle (about three miles).