Fish return to S. Santiam; Steelhead, salmon already nearing last year’s totals

After five years of mostly poor steelhead and salmon runs, the fish have returned.

Brett Boyd, manager of the South Santiam Hatchery, said that, despite high water and unseasonably cold weather, the number of steelhead that have returned to Foster Dam already this year is close to the number that returned by Sept. 1 last year.

The average count for summer steelhead at Willamette Falls is about 14,000. As of June 17, more than 18,000 had passed the falls.

“We have a lot of steelhead returning to the lower Columbia and Willamette systems this year,” said Todd Alsbury, district fish biologist for Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife’s North Willamette Watershed. Alsbury said the same favorable ocean conditions that buoyed coho salmon runs last fall and chinook salmon runs this spring are now showing up in big steelhead returns.

Boyd said the South Santiam Hatchery averages about 4,700 new summer steelhead annually and its staff recycles usually some 5,100 by Sept. 1, after which any stragglers are donated to local food banks. Last year 4,586 steelhead were trapped and recycled. By June 15 the hatchery had recycled 3,064 and Boyd anticipated another 500 or so by Friday.

“I think we’ll break (last year’s numbers) by the end of the week,” he said. “It’s definitely a good run this year. June and July are peak months, so we’re just now getting into the peak.”

The ODFW last week approved a temporary rule increasing the combined steelhead/salmon bag limit to total of three fish a day on the Willamette, Clackamas and Sandy rivers, effective June 18 through Oct. 31.

Under the rule change, anglers are permitted to retain up to three adult adipose fin-clipped fish per day. The combined three-fish total allows for retention of steelhead, salmon or both, of which no more than two may be salmon.

For anglers who want to catch these fish, the long, cold spring weather is providing additional benefits.

“The lower water temperatures and higher flows are creating very, very good €“ almost ideal €“ fishing conditions,” said Alsbury. “Plus, there haven’t been a lot of people out fishing.”

Spring Chinook salmon are also moving into the Santiam rivers system, and Boyd said he expects them to show up in numbers soon at the hatchery.

“Salmon are jumping below dam, but with the high water and colder temperatures they have not felt inclined to move into the (fish) ladder (at Foster Dam),” he said. “As of June 13, 45,000 had crossed over Willamette Falls. It’s definitely a good run this year. They just haven’t showed up in our trap yet. We just don’t know what’s going on because the water’s so dang high.”

Jack Legg, operator of Dan Dee Sales sporting goods store, said that his customers are having a good year.

“There are a lot of fish,” he said. “A lot of salmon and a lot of steelhead. A lot of people are catching fish this year.”

He and Boyd said the high river levels on the South Santiam have slowed fishing a bit.

“We’ve had so much water that it’s cut into fishing time,” Legg said.

Boyd said this is the best run since 2004, which was a record year for Chinook, with 10,542 returning to Foster Dam, and a good steelhead year as well, with 6,275 being trapped before the trap was shut down in the middle of July.

He said 2006 was a good steelhead year, with over 6,200 counted.

Boyd said he expects the surge in the local fish population to help the community.

After the hatchery staff has trapped enough fish and collected eggs to breed next year’s stock, the leftover fish will be donated to Sweet Home Gleaners and Fair Share Gleaners, he said. Last year the hatchery donated 758 steelhead weighing a total of more than 5,760 pounds, he said.

“I think this is definitely going to be a positive for the community and it will be good for the food bank too,” Boyd said. “We are going to donate a lot of fish.”