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.
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
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.