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Fishing in Western Oregon Part 1 The Chinooks
“When are the salmon running?” This question stands out among all the others when people find out I am a fishing guide. Two requirements have to be met before this question can be answered. First would be some knowledge about the landscape of Oregon and the next would be knowledge of salmonids that inhabit Western Oregon. Understanding the topography of our state will increase your knowledge of the where, when, and why of our anadromous fish. Anadromous fish in Oregon include salmon, steelhead, trout, striped bass, sturgeon, and shad. Western Oregon also supports abundant populations of freshwater species that do not migrate to the ocean. These include small and largemouth bass, perch, sunfish, crappie, catfish, and the lowly carp. In this “Introduction” I will focus on “when are the salmon running?” The fish I will write about will be the salmon, steelhead and trout. These fish are native to our state and are the subject of 90 per cent of the questions addressed to me.
So, when are the salmon running? First an angler should acquaint himself with the 5 species of salmon that are found in the Northwest. Each Pacific salmon have at least two names. They are the Chinook or King, Silver or Coho, the Chum or Dog, the Pink or Humpy, and the Sockeye or Reds. There is also the Steelhead which is still under debate whether it is a salmon or a sea going Rainbow Trout. I have caught all these salmonids in Oregon waters with the exception of the Sockeye. At the bottom of the column would be the migratory Sea-run Cutthroat Trout.
We will start with the migration of the Chinook (King) Salmon and the river basins these fish utilize. In Western Oregon there are two mountain ranges that furnish the water required for the Chinook to spawn. To the east we have the Cascades with peaks over 10,000 feet. To the west we have the Coast Range with peaks no higher than 5000 feet. Rivers flow east and west of the Cascades and the Coast Range. In the Willamette Valley where 70 per cent of Oregonians reside our main source for water is from the west flowing rivers from the Cascades. This is also true for the anadromous fish that return to our valley. An interesting fact that many anglers fail to realize when they are pursuing salmon in our valley is that the fish coming into the Middle Fork of the Willamette and the Mckenzie Rivers (the two rivers flowing west from the Cascades closest to Eugene-Springfield) are coming all the way from Astoria on the Columbia River. The Willamette Valley is part of the Columbia River drainage. It is the first major drainage east of the Pacific Ocean for the Columbia River. Another fact many anglers are not aware of is there are actually two distinct species of Chinook Salmon.
My daughter McKenzie with some fall Chinook
Although the Fall Chinook and Spring Chinook share the same Latin name Onchorynchus Tshawytscha and it is impossible to tell the difference between the two in the ocean (at least to me) the biological makeup of the two fish have major differences. When our Spring Chinook enter our rivers in late February-March their eggs and milt cavities are just beginning to develop. On the other end of the spectrum the Fall Chinook upon entering our rivers in late August through October have reproductive eggs and milt ready to spawn. The biggest difference from a layman's perspective is that the Spring Chinook has stored more fat in its body to make longer journeys to its spawning grounds. The Spring Chinook is the salmon that makes the journey into Idaho approaching a thousand miles by river to its spawning grounds in the Rockies. I have traveled to the upper reaches of the Salmon River near Stanley and Challis Idaho to see three Spring Chinook waiting to spawn. This was the last week of August in 1995. Since that moment I have been in awe by the power and beauty of these magnificent fish. It is a shame that these fish will be extinct in Idaho in the coming years. Another distinction between the Spring Chinook and the Fall Chinook can be defined by noting that the Spring Chinook is in our rivers for 8 months before spawning and the Fall Chinook is in our rivers one month prior to spawning. The Spring Chinook must have rivers large enough for them to travel through the summer and into October. They do not have to wait for rain. Most of our Fall Chinook travel up the small coast rivers and have to wait for rain to bring the river level high enough to travel. Remember that our Coast Range mountains are less than 5000 feet.
“So when are the salmon running?” In our Willamette Valley the Spring Chinook start their migration from Astoria in late February-March and reach Eugene and Springfield in May. In late October and early November you can see the spent salmon below Leaburg Dam on the Mckenzie River spawning in shallow water at the tail end of pools. Legal angling for Chinook closes on August 15th on the Mckenzie and is open the entire year on the Middle Fork of the Willamette. This is because the Mckenzie is thought to have the only wild run of Spring Chinook in the Willamette Valley. I find that the quality of the flesh of Spring Chinook starts to suffer near the fourth of July. You must remember that these fish do not eat during the upriver migration and they live off the fat stored in their bodies. The longer they are in fresh water the more fat they burn. The closer they get to spawning … the less fat they have in their flesh. The meat from fish close to spawning becomes mushy and has no texture or flavor. They can be used as fertilizer but I like to believe that if they are released they might have a chance to spawn and create some offspring that might make it to the ocean. It is difficult to get people to release fish. The major rivers in the Willamette Valley that has Spring Chinook runs include the Clackamas, North and South Santiam, the Mckenzie, and the Middle Fork of the Willamette. These are all large rivers flowing west from our Cascades.
This is a Spring Chinook in the net on the Mckenzie River in May, 2010
The majority of the Fall Chinook fishing is done on the short coastal rivers that drain west from our Coast Range. These fish do not travel far from the ocean and the small west draining coast rivers are ideal for these fish. There are many coastal rivers that support these fish. Some of the important rivers starting from the north are the Nehalem, Wilson, Trask, Big and Little Nestucca, Salmon, Siletz, Yaquina, Alsea, Siuslaw, Smith, Coos, Sixes, Elk, and the Chetco. The Fall Chinook will move in and out with the tide sometime in August and wait for the fall rains to raise the river levels. You will see anglers trolling for Fall Chinook from mid August into October or until it rains hard enough to make the rivers rise. If you have ever seen the Siuslaw River above Mapleton before the fall rains in late summer you will see that there is not enough water in the river for these big fish to travel. Once the rivers rise you must get to these fish in a hurry. Remember that the eggs in these fish are ripe and they will start to spawn in late October. If these fish have been in running water over two weeks they are not fit to eat. You will see that the fish's skin changes colors when it is in fresh water. The males become red and the females turn gray-black. When the Fall Chinook are dark they are not good to eat. The Spring Chinook can have dark skin and still have good meat because they have much more body fat. Remember they are in the Cascade rivers for 8 months before they spawn.
Of course there are always the exceptions to general rules in fish runs. There are three coast rivers that have a much later run of Fall Chinook. Some anglers call this run the Winter Chinook run. I am speaking of the Sixes, Elk, and the Chetco. These coast rivers have runs that go into January.
Part 2 Silvers, Steelhead, Sea-run Cutthroat Trout, and the Rest
Our Silvers (Coho) have had a rough time trying to survive environmental changes but they seem to be bouncing back. We do not see many Silver Salmon in the Willamette Valley above Willamette River Falls at Oregon City (there have been good runs of Silvers in recent years but they still don't make it up to Eugene). There is no Spring or Summer run of these fish. They follow the Fall Chinook runs on the coast rivers in the fall. Most of the small coast rivers have some run of Silvers. I have caught them from October into December. The Siuslaw is the closest river that has a run of Silvers. I am happy to report that this will be the first year in many (ten or more) that this river will be open to angling for these wonderful fish (they are closed again and I am writing in 2010). The Siuslaw had really big runs of these fish 30 years ago. Their eggs are also ripe when they come into fresh water and they also turn dark with age.
When people speak about Steelhead they talk about this fish as though it were a mystical fish. It's probably in the name…”Steelhead!” I am here to tell you that it's just another slimy fish that can be hard to catch. Biologists are still debating whether this fish is a salmon or a Rainbow Trout. The last I heard it was being listed as the 6th species of Pacific Salmon. Whether it is a salmon or a trout it's behavior is more suited to the trout. It is also the only anadormous salmon on the Pacific Coast that can spawn more than once. Although this fish is nothing like a Spring or Fall Chinook there are some similarities in that there are the Summer Steelhead and the Winter Steelhead. And like the Spring and Fall Chinook there is one specie that travels far and the other stays closer to the ocean.
The Summer Steelhead comes into fresh water at the same time as the Spring Chinook. This fish is also a Columbia River fish and can travel the long distances into Idaho. The Summer Steelhead gets to Eugene-Springfield about the same time as the Spring Chinook. They can actually arrive a couple of weeks earlier since they will travel in the river when it is too cold for the Chinook to travel.
Mike Middaugh with a McKenzie River summer steelhead
I have caught Summer Steelhead on the Mckenzie and the Middle Fork of the Willamette in mid April. They run the same Cascade Rivers in our valley as I mentioned earlier. The surprising fact about these fish is that they are in our rivers for a whole year before they spawn. You have a large window of opportunity for hooking these fish. Local fishing guides start fishing for the summer run in late April and continue to catch them into December. After mid-July when the rivers become low, clear, and warm the summer fish are very hard to catch. Many guides do not fish for them from mid-July through August even though the fish are present in good numbers. These fish start biting again when the weather turns cooler in the fall. After December the quality of their flesh declines and they spawn in March and April.
Here's Lisa Churchman with an Umpqua Silver Salmon just before we release it ...
The Winter Steelhead are caught on the same coastal rivers that flow west from the Coast Range. Like the Fall Chinook and Silvers these fish are also ripe with eggs and milt when they enter our coast rivers. This run comes after the Silver Salmon. We usually get our first big rise in our rivers around Thanksgiving. This is the rise that flushes out all the fall leaves and sometimes causes flooding at low elevations. Before we get our steelhead rods out for the winter fish we have to be patient and have the rivers drop enough to start turning a green color. This is usually the first week of December. My best days have been around Christmas through January. These fish can be caught through March. I do not fish for them in March because they are too close to spawning. Some winter fish are already spawning in March and will spawn through April. Even though the winter fish can be in our coast rivers in good numbers it is the winter rains that keep anglers from catching these fish. Our rivers are usually high and muddy at least half the winter. Getting to the river when it is falling into shape has to fit into a person's schedule. Our Willamette Valley also sees some winter fish. As I mentioned earlier these fish are ripe when they get to fresh water so they do not travel as far as Summer Steelhead. They make it up as far as the Santiams but run out of steam before they make it to the Mckenzie and the Middle Fork of the Willamette.
There was a time in the past when many anglers anticipated the return of the coastal Sea-run Cutthroat Trout. These are the first migrating salmonid to enter our coast rivers. This fish is also bouncing back from environmental degradation. Because these fish are much smaller than the salmons and steelheads they are able to travel up the coast rivers when the rivers are low. You can find them above tidewater in August. The Siuslaw again has opened the river to this fishery and two fish can be kept. The Sea-run Cutthroat Trout can be caught from August through December in most of the rivers flowing west from our Coast Range. Remember to check your Oregon Sport Fishing Regulation booklet to see if you are able to angle for these fish in the river you are planning to fish. Some rivers are closed, some are open for catch and release, and some are open with a two fish limit.
The other species of Salmonids which are the Pink, Chum, and the Sockeye are not of importance in Western Oregon because these fish are not present in large numbers. I have caught one Chum Salmon on Tenmile Creek out of Lakeside. I have caught one Pink Salmon out of Charleston in the ocean. I have never caught a Sockeye in Oregon. There is a landlocked form of the Sockeye in our Cascade Lakes and I have caught plenty of these. I must mention that our Columbia River used to have one of the largest runs of Sockeye on the West Coast. This run was over 3 million fish! These fish also ran up to Idaho. The fish count for Sockeye on the Snake River was 299 fish last year. They are almost extinct in Idaho. I mention this only to remind anglers of our responsibility to our fragile environment. You cannot become a serious angler if you are not serious about our environment.
Part 3 Three Special Rivers…Umpqua, Rogue, and the Deschutes
There are three world class rivers to fish in Western Oregon that attract fishermen from around the globe. These are the Umpqua, Rogue, and the Deschutes. All three have one thing in common … they have their beginnings in our Cascade Range.
The Umpqua and the Rogue River are different from the other Cascade Rivers that flow west into our Willamette Valley. These rivers flow directly into the Pacific Ocean. They cut through our Coast Range and are not part of the Columbia drainage. Because they are large Cascade Rivers that drain into the ocean there are anadromous fish in these rivers throughout the year. They support runs of Spring and Fall Chinook, Silver Salmon, Summer and Winter Steelhead, Sea-run Cutthroat trout and in the Rogue…a unique strain of steelhead call Half-pounders. “When are the salmon running?” In these two Cascade Rivers they are always running.
The Umpqua River is the closest to my home in Creswell, Oregon. This river is also the one I am most familiar with because of its close proximity. My children and I have fished this river from Winchester Bay (it's mouth) to its headwaters near Diamond Lake and Lemola Reservoir high in the Cascades. The Spring Chinook run starts at Winchester Bay in late February and March as in the Columbia. Serious angling begins in late March and lasts through mid May in the lower river around the town of Elkton. The Summer Steelhead is moving along with these fish at the same time. In June and July the Spring Chinook are fished in the Roseburg area and upriver to Rock Creek Hatchery above the town of Glide. The Summer Steelhead is also targeted in this area. As the Spring Chinook fishing is winding down in August the Summer Steelhead continues to be target fish into November. When the Spring Chinook fishing is ending in August upriver… the Fall Chinook start to enter Winchester Bay downriver. The Silver Salmon follow the Fall Chinook and the Winter Steelhead are not far behind. The Sea-run Cutthroat Trout is also migrating along with the fall and winter fish.
Spring Chinook in the viewing window at Winchester Dam on the North Umpqua. There's one steelhead showing.
Let me take a short break from this article. Tomorrow I will be going to Winchester Bay (Sept. 3rd) and will be fishing for Chinook and Silver Salmon in the bay as these fish begin their fall run. If I wanted to catch Summer Steelhead I would drive to the North Umpqua above Roseburg and fish upriver for these fish. When I speak of the Umpqua River I include the North Umpqua River as part of this river. There is also the South Umpqua River that has only a Winter Steelhead run of notice.
There are other fish that migrate in this diverse river and they include the Shad, the Striped Bass, and two species of sturgeon…the White Sturgeon and the Green Sturgeon. The South Umpqua and the lower Umpqua also support a large number of Smallmouth Bass that were illegally planted in the 1960's.
Being farther away from my home the Rogue River sees me only 10 days out of a year. The Rogue also begins high in the Cascades with headwaters starting around Crater Lake and emptying into the ocean at Gold Beach. The runs of the Salmonids are similar to the Umpqua with the exception of the Half-pounders. These are juvenile steelhead that spend only a couple of months in the ocean and return to the river to feed on aquatic insects. Since these fish are actively feeding on insects they are the best fish for the fly rod when they make their first run. They enter the lower river in August and continue through November. They winter in the Grants Pass area and go back to the ocean in March and April. After a year or two in the ocean they make their second run as adult steelhead. This second run is their spawning run and can start as early as March and continue into November. This fish average 12 to 16 inches on their first feeding run and come back as 3 to 6 pound fish on their spawning run. The second run fish will also take the fly but not as aggressively as the Half-pounders.
Mike and Eli with a variety of salmonids on the Rogue River in late September
It is not only fishing that attract people from around the globe to this river destination. The Rogue is also known for its “Wild and Scenic” section that begins below Grants Pass and ends above Agness. This section covers 33 miles of river and has 33 class II rapids, 9 class III's, 3 class IV's, and one class V. River runners from around the world come to challenge its whitewaters. You will spend 3 days and two nights on the river if you run this section. There are lodges to overnight or you can chose to camp on the river. I will remind you that a forest service permit is needed to float the “Wild and Scenic” Rogue in the summer. You must be an expert on the oars if you plan to visit this section. If you are not an expert oarsman you can hire one of the many guides and outfitters that make a living on this river.
When people think of Oregon they usually think of lush green valleys and miles of thick Douglas Fir trees. However Oregon is two- thirds arid desert country in the central and eastern portions of the state. Although this article is focused on Western Oregon which is lush and green I cannot let this article go without mentioning the Deschutes River. This river is different.
Again we have a river that has its beginnings high in the Cascades. But instead of flowing west into the ocean or the Willamette Valley this river flows south to north into the Columbia. It is similar to the Willamette River in this respect. The difference between the Willamette River and the Deschutes River is its elevation. The Willamette River is just under 367 feet at Eugene and the Deschutes River at Bend, Oregon is 3638 feet. Many of the tributary headwaters of the Deschutes flow east from the Cascades. These creeks do not have to flow far to reach the Deschutes since the river is over 4000 feet in its beginning. When I was floating the Deschutes a few years ago near Madras I realized I was in a desert canyon. The only green vegetation was next to the river and the rest of the scenery was the picture of Arizona. I could have sworn I saw an Indian on a painted pony on the canyon top.
The Deschutes is the second major drainage into the Columbia from Oregon following the Willamette. This river is known for its Rainbow Trout and Summer Steelhead. There is also a small run of Spring and Fall Chinook. Some years the Deschutes is closed to Chinook fishing because of its low numbers. It has no Sea-run Cutthroat Trout or Silver Salmon.
This river also attracts river runners with its many rapids. Although river running and fishing is the biggest draw I visit this river for its unique scenery and high desert atmosphere. This river as with the Rogue is far from my home and I am lucky if I get to visit it once a year.
I hope my information might be of some help to those of you who want to chase some salmon in Western Oregon. As a fishing guide and fisherman I am on the water over 120 days out of the year and I will keep you posted on what's happening. I have to mention I also fish for Smallmouth Bass, Shad, Striped Bass, and Sturgeon. When I am fortunate enough to vacation in our tropical climates I fish for Marlin, Sailfish, Mahi-Mahi, and Tuna.