Early, but Bleak: Steelhead Returns

I spent time this morning looking at my calendar and thinking about fishing over the next 2-3 months. The end of August is when I would like to switch over to steelhead fishing on the Deschutes River. So, I took a look at the Fish Passage Center website. These are all the steelhead destined for all the rivers above Bonneville Dam on the Columbia River, not just the Deschutes. Bleak is about the best I can say, even more bleak than last year’s horrible returns. It’s early in the season, but the graphs say it all. I’m not ready to sell all my steelhead gear yet, but this sure is depressing. You need to ask yourself, is the pleasure you get from fishing worth contributing to the continued decline of these fish? Even with the best catch and release practices, some fish are killed.

All steelhead over Bonneville Dam. Data as of 8/7/21.
Same chart for unclipped steelhead.

As of 8/7/21, a total of 17,893 steelhead have passed through Bonneville this year, 9,834 of them are unclipped. Most, but not all, unclipped fish are wild. Note that the 10 year average number masks just how bad things are. When the numbers are consistently low, the average goes down. As you can see in this report, 477,997 steelhead passed through Bonneville in 2002. We’re not going to get anywhere close to that this year. 2002 was a good return year, but the really good years were 90 years ago before the network of dams throughout the Columbia Basin started to be installed.

Turning to the Deschutes River, here’s a historical graph for wild steelhead counts through Sherars Falls below Maupin. Again, note that “wild” is all unclipped fish which includes hatchery fish that were not clipped as part of the Upper Basin reintroduction program.

Here’s the same chart for steelhead from the Round Butte Hatchery near Madras.