Middle Fork of the Willamette Steelhead

Local Fly Fishing guide and friend or OregonFlyFishingBlog.com Matt Ramsey sent this email the our local biologist Jeff Ziller. See Jeff’s response below. Some interesting discussions here.


Hi Jeff,

I just wanted to let you know that in my steelhead guiding this season on the Middle Fork Willamette, I have seen an unusually high number of unclipped fish in the catch. I have seen plenty of unclipped hatchery fish over the years, but these unclipped fish are different. These fish have clean, straight fin rays, and a distinctly different body build, suggesting they are not of hatchery origin. They have been appearing regularly in my catch since June, and I have heard from other guides that they have seen the same. In the last two days of guiding, out of 6 fish landed, 3 have been unclipped/wild fish. I am concerned that these are late-returning, wild reared, Fall Creek Run winter steelhead.


Despite the 2012 regulations allowing for the harvest of non-adipose fin-clipped steelhead the entire year, I have been releasing all unclipped fish. I understand that this regulation was established because historically there was never a native “summer run” of steelhead on the Middle Fork Willamette. However, the late winter/early spring floods historically allowed passage over Willamette Falls for steelhead and spring chinook runs, including those still returning to the Santiams, McKenzie and Willamette. Many guides agree with me that it is unwise to allow the harvest of unclipped fish where so many wild and potentially threatened steelhead also swim.

This year, unfortunately, the liberal harvest regulation change seems to have coincided with an unusually strong return of wild steelhead, leading to the demise of many of these fish. Please consider changing the regulation back to fin-clipped steelhead only harvest, for the coming seasons. There can surely be nothing to lose from making this change, and there may plenty to lose if the regulations remain in place.

Matt Ramsey ;-)~

Jeff’s Response is as follows

Hi Matt:

Thanks for the pictures and the thoughts on your observations of unmarked steelhead on the Middle Fork Willamette. The number of “clean” unmarked fish you are seeing is certainly high and suggests some relatively good survival from spawning fish 3-5 years ago. Although these fish are naturally spawned, the chance that they are wild winter steelhead is extremely low. Historically, our native Willamette winter steelhead were found passing Willamette Falls in mid-February through May and spawned from March into June the same year (they don’t summer over to the next year). From the pictures and the timing of the fish you have been seeing, these would appear to be natural reproduction from Skamania summer steelhead.

As you correctly pointed out, the regulations allow for the harvest of unmarked summer and winter steelhead as ODFW considers these fish as non-native invaders that we have introduced to this area. Natural reproduction of these fish can be detrimental to our native Willamette rainbow trout (redsides) populations because they compete for spawning and rearing areas as well as potentially hybridize with our redsides. I certainly understand your interest in allowing these fish to reproduce providing additional wild fish for harvest (and even with our liberal regulations, they will reproduce). However, there is a cost to our native fish. Also, keep in mind that the National Marine Fisheries Service gives no special ESA recognition to the Willamette winter steelhead population above the mouth of the Calapooia River because these fish originated from the Marion Forks Hatchery winter steelhead program.

You also pointed out that you have not been keeping these fish and I would guess that many if not most anglers continue to release the unmarked fish. That is certainly an angler’s prerogative; however, as a biologist I do not believe a reproducing summer steelhead population is a great idea in the upper Willamette Basin.

If you get the chance to give us a call, I would like to talk with you. I think we both have information that would be of mutual interest. Thanks again for your thoughts.

This entry was posted in Middle Fork Willamette River fishing, Oregon Conservation News, Summer Steelhead. Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to Middle Fork of the Willamette Steelhead

  1. Steve P says:

    Dear ODFW,

    Data are emerging already from the Willamette telemetry study to disprove your long-standing assertion of no viable wild winter steelhead upstream of the Calapooia. End management by speculation. Use these guides as another set of eyes (and sampling technicians) on the river. Run some DNA.

  2. chaveecha says:


    Thanks for letting us in on this. Those fish seem pretty damn special when you’re holding them in the water, admiring their above-average qualities. And yet, they are considered pests under the cold scrutiny of science. Crazy and effed up. It’s a star-crossed-love story. Fish that never should have found each other, making love in some corner of the suburban jungle. Their love-child offspring manage to survive an impossible trip to Japan and back, only to find themselves the targets of a capture-and-kill order in their home waters. But even the most dedicated wild-only activists will have a hard time bonking these fish. They are that beautiful. And Mr. Ziller, faithful protector of the wild genetic codes, is forced into the position of Doctor Death. One might predict the climax of the story, where Ziller finds himself cradling a big, wild summer steelhead in a quiet eddy of the McKenzie. The fish fought hard, and now, looking back at him from just below the surface, the beam of life shining through that fish’s eye seems to be talking to him. He looks around to see if anyone is watching, and when he feels sure there are no witnesses, he lets go. Or something like that.

    The rules don’t say you have to kill them. You have a choice. That seems like a good way to handle this one. But I admire your opinion and your passion.

  3. Stevie says:

    Great discussion, thanks for sharing.

    So, am I correct in understanding Jeff’s comments about winter steelhead in the upper Willamette basin…there are no “natives”?? The wild winter fish that come in early spring are not native? They are originally hatchery stock?

    Hmm, didn’t know that.

  4. Nick says:

    Man, Ziller’s last paragraph is a teaser! Talk about leaving a dude on the edge of his seat. Now I’m dying to know what sort of wisdom is hidden in that “information […] of mutual interest.” The secrets of the universe, no doubt.

  5. Snoppy Rodder says:



  6. Scott M. says:

    Interesting read. I am not sure how you can positively state that there never has been a native run of Steelhead above the Calapooia river. It seems to me that we are finding evidence of new creatures and extinct forms of life everyday in places where we never thought they existed. So are these fish Non Native or an existing race of Steelhead that has finally succeeded where we once thought they did not exist? or maybe we are just getting more educated and more aware of what is going on around us. Ask the question and find the answer before you jump off of this cliff.

    If in fact they are the off spring of an earlier attempt by man to introduce them it is impressive to say the least that after few generations of what was originally thought to be a failed effort in a stocking program (supposedly) that these wonderful fish have adapted to a new home river. Nature is remarkable in that if you give her just a slim chance her creatures can overcome unbelievable odds to gain a foot hold. In evolution all things change and over time genetics force them to adapt to the environments they live in. I do love our so called Native species but also you have got to appreciate the fact that these supposed not natives are doing their best to succeed in the new world we brought them into. I for one say give them a chance and lets see what comes of all of this.

  7. David Jensen says:

    These fish in the photos look different, not just because of the adipose fin. They look wild. Earlier this year, I caught a 32 inch buck on the McKenzie which was an epic fight. I photographed the fish, and orally described the fish separately to Jeff and Kellie at ODFW Springfield, and both assured me it was a hatchery fish, despite the size, adipose fin, bulk, and fight. I photographed the fish, and released him. I wish I had been smart enough to preserve some scales from the net for analysis. In 35 years of living on the McKenzie, this was the first such fish. Chris and Matt earlier did a (hopefully tongue in cheek) report of a Sasquatch sighting at Fishladder Rapid on the upper river. Maybe the piscatorial equivalent is here.

  8. Erik Stowell says:

    A genetic study was published in 2010 looking at genetic subgroups of Willamette steelhead (Doornik and Teel, Manchester Research Lab), indicating that there was not significant intermixing between wild winter and hatchery summer stocks. The sampling was done from 1986-1988, taken from Willamette Falls, Foster and Minto traps. The Willamette town run has exploded since then, so another similar study on Willamette fish above the Santiam might settle this controversy. I agree that the non-clipped fish look and act differently, and I also release them. This dialogue raises a number of questions: How many of the ‘wild redsides’ in this stretch and above Dexter are of hatchery origin? If these presumed native rainbows are so precious that we’re concerned about steelhead out competing them, why do the regs allow harvest of 5 trout over 8″ and use of bait below Dexter?? Are some of the rainbows throughout the Willamette basin of Steelhead Origin, as the wild redbands in the Eastern Columbia Basin probably are? Are we sure there weren’t steelhead runs along with the salmon into the upper Willamette system before Lookout, Dexter and Hills Creek dams? It seems prudent to simplify the regs, and preclude harvest of non-clipped fish until objective information clearly shows these fish are hatchery stock. I think there are worse outcomes than having established (or reestablished?) a wild run of summer fish below Dexter.

  9. Brian Marz says:

    Years ago I butted heads hard on the telephone with Ziller. All the phone call proved to me was his ignorance in the fisheries of the southern Willamette Valley area. He claimed that stream surveyors were spotting steelhead reproducing in the tributaries, and that was a huge concern. I told him that with the numbers of fish that I see; combined with the bunches of other area guides accounts (Matt R, Ethan N, Etc, Etc…), there is not really viable return of ferule steelhead. I see 100’s of fish each year, and I only see a handful of native non fin clipped fish out there over the years. I have seen mis-clipped fish before, and they have dorsals that are ragged, or something that just doesn’t look right to be a wild fish.

    I had a fish several years back that was literally about 17#s and as native/wild as can be. Ziller insisted that fish was a hatchery ferule, and the funny thing was that he was not there to see the fish in person or get a sample of its genetics. I was the person observing the fish, and Matt Ramsey is the one seeing those fish in his report. I know after seeing 1000’s of Skamania Stock Steelhead, I know what they look like, and I can tell you that steelhead didn’t appear like magic in streams that they decided to inhabit. How did runs originally start getting steelhead into them…..? Straying…..

    Killing fish that have legitimate adipose fins does not seem like a good management strategy. If Ziller is so sure that Skamania Hatchery Summer Steelhead stocks are successfully spawning and ferule fish are resulting, then he should take a hard look at rivers that discontinued stocking like the Molalla. There were no summer steelhead after a year or so of stocking it, and when the adults came back, it was over…..

    Backwards management is always puzzling to me…..

  10. Terry Robinson says:

    I too caught a wild steelhed this summer on a waking fly. A nice thick bodied hen. I think it is rediculous to allow killing these fish. With so many rivers struggeling to re-establish wild runs, we are trying to stop wild runs on the Mckenzie and Willamette. I have heard of reports of local residents on the Mohawk seeing late winter fish in that system for years. I have never heard of a stocking program on that system, so I can not help to believe it has always been there. They should have done a lot more research before allowing catch and kill on these beautiful fish.

  11. shawn tull says:

    ziller hasn’t a clue what is going on in these tributary’s of the Willamette I’ve been trying to get #s from him relating to the stoppage of the little fall creek hatch program.he says it was not stopped to protect the wild steelhead but that they lost the brood stock .in another answer he says they simply replaced the run with the town run claiming they are the same fish I’ve lived on little fall Creek for 7 years and I’ve not seen one winter fish up here a few wandering summers but no winters with all that said why the million sum $ ladder at river mile 11?for a run that doesn’t exsist and a run that he claims to have simply moved to town.we need to elect this person and we need a vote on our fish and game laws why close the north side of the river below Dexter its worked fine since 1965 why now make it harder to catch s fish that’s only perpus was for the sportsman paid for by the sportsman just doesn’t make much since to much power for one person of not our choosing.

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