Let's face it. Steelhead conservation can be a little discouraging. Mostly not-so-good news about our favorite fish. But there are a few bright spots among the sea of challenges, Oregon's North Umpqua River being a prime example. What can we learn from this river system, where wild steelhead are flourishing?
On the North Umpqua, the wild steelhead population has remained incredibly stable since the 1940s. In fact, from 1975 to the present, there is actually a growth trend for this run-pretty uncommon in this day and age. Since the 1970s we have made reforms to timber harvest practices, hatchery management and spent millions of dollars on habitat restoration throughout the historic range of West Coast steelhead. So why isn't the North Umpqua trend more prevalent?
Most likely it is because we are, as a rule, not addressing all of the factors limiting steelhead population growth in every watershed. While the Umpqua River Basin has seen its share of habitat alteration and degradation, the North Umpqua is a rare example of a sub-watershed where staunch advocates had the foresight and dedication to protect its habitat and fish before they became degraded. Thus, the North Umpqua has never had a winter steelhead hatchery, has had special fishing regulations for decades, and the spawning habitat in its headwaters is in public lands that have been fairly well protected.
This is the North Umpqua's secret sauce: a complete suite of protections which have allowed its wild steelhead to thrive even as the climate has warmed dramatically and steelhead runs elsewhere are shadows of their former selves. There is no simple, magic formula for rebuilding and sustaining wild steelhead populations. We must take an honest look at angling practices, become strong advocates for policy decisions grounded in the most current science, and redouble our habitat restoration efforts to return the great sport fish of western North America to its former glory.
One of the biggest challenges in the long effort to rebuild wild steelhead populations in Puget Sound is poor survival of early stage steelhead in the marine environment. A major research effort to understand and address this problem is under way-but it needs a new infusion of funding. Wild Steelheaders United urges Washington anglers to contact their legislators this week and ask them to support additional funding for this crucial research.
Frank and Jeanne Moore have served as stewards of the legendary North Umpqua River for over 60 years. Proposed legislation from Senators Wyden and Merkley and Rep. DeFazio would pay tribute to the Moore's legacy by creating the Frank and Jeanne Moore Wild Steelhead Special Management Area. This designation would permanently protect a critical wild steelhead spawning and rearing tributary as well as pay homage to Frank's military service in WWII and this remarkable couple's lifetime of dedication to this special place and its incredible steelhead. Read the latest update here.
As part of the recovery plan for salmon and steelhead in the Deschutes River system, a major project is under way to improve fish passage for native salmon and steelhead. Trout Unlimited has been working for the past several years to help resolve issues related to the recovery effort and the Pelton-Round Butte fish passage project while conserving the diverse angling opportunities found on this famous river.
Are some steelhead more prone to biting than others? If so, it is possible that in our angling we are selecting against fish that are more likely to strike, and thus, be caught. While this question hasn't been studied in steelhead, there is research on other species which may provide insights for sea-run O. mykiss.