Here’s a quick run-down on some preferred river levels:
Siuslaw: 7′-4′ (at Mapleton)
Alsea: 6.5′-4′ (at Tidewater)
Siletz: 6.5′-4′ (at Siletz)
North Fork Umpqua: When the flow on the Steamboat Creek gauge and the North Fork at Copeland Creek gauge add up to approximately 2000 cfs.
Umpqua River: 8′-4′ (at Elkton)
Elk River: 6′-4′
Much more so than during the relatively stable flows of summer, understanding the wildly fluctuating flows of your favorite river is critical to winter steelhead success. Judging from the number of inquiries about river levels at the shop, most steelheaders understand that good conditions are important but many aren’t sure what levels to look for.
Each river has an optimum range for winter steelhead fishing expressed in either cubic feet per second or height at a given location or both. It isn’t important which measurement you monitor (unless one gauge only has one or the other) but it is critical that you monitor the gauge of the river that you want to fish. Watching the gauges regularly gives you an idea of trends which are important as our rivers often fish best when “dialed back in” after a period of higher water. By knowing what levels are high, low and optimal and following trends you will maximize your chance of finding winter chrome.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration publishes a couple pages that are useful for anglers in our area. For streams in the Willamette Zone and Northwest Zone you can find flows, levels and forecasts at this link: Northwest Oregon. For southern Oregon, the NOAA publishes forecasts and levels here: Southern Oregon. In addition to the NOAA river level website, the USGS also maintains it’s own site: USGS River Levels. There are a few gauges on the USGS page that are not shown on the NOAA page. Though it doesn’t happen as often anymore, in the event that you don’t have or can’t reach an internet connection you can call the National Weather Service at (503) 261-9246 and follow the prompts. The Elk River does not have an online gauge but you can get a reading by calling the hatchery at (541) 332-7025.
The Siuslaw fishes up to about 8.5 feet on the Mapleton Gauge and the Alsea fishes from the bank all the way up to 9 feet at the tidewater gauge if you want to fish the hatchery or have access to private water on the upper North Fork. Otherwise, don’t bother until the river has fallen to a more respectable level.
I generally prefer the water at around 5.5 feet and steady or falling on the Alsea at Tidewater gauge. As for the Siuslaw, the river fishes better at 7.0 feet and below on the Mapleton gauge. Under 5.5 feet, the Whitaker Creek to Wildcat drift gets a little low but passable. When the river falls beneath 5 feet, the angling pressure really drops off but those low water conditions are great for getting after steelhead with your fly rod. Below five feet, hit the Whitaker to Wildcat drift or focus on the next section from Wildcat to Linslaw Park which also is productive amongst other times, when the river is right around five feet.
Look for water that is on the low end of what is considered fishable to maximize your chance of success with a fly rod particularly from the bank. That said, don’t just stay home if the water isn’t perfect. In higher water conditions, fish will hang closer to the bank and you won’t need a long cast to reach the fish.
Memorizing what rivers fish best at which levels isn’t the easiest thing to do. Fortunately, there are a couple good publications carried at the shop that local anglers can use as a reference tool for finding when rivers will be “in.” With so much water to fish in Oregon, everyone forgets from time to time.
If you don’t own Fishing in Oregon by Madeline Diness Sheehan come buy it . . . now. Seriously. It is that important. Another book full of useful information is the Oregon River Maps and Fishing Guide which shows river access points, boat launches, best river levels and other relevant information.
The bottom line is that learning your river levels is hardly the most glamorous aspect of winter steelheading but is as important as anything for steelhead success. Good luck out there.–KM