The story of steelhead in Central Oregon

Nov 20, 2014
History is in the making as we watch steelhead, an iconic species that defines the Northwest, make a triumphant return to Central Oregon.

In fall you’ll start to hear a strange sort of talk around Central Oregon. Folks will talk of “the run” and “the lower D.” Clueless? I was until I started to put it all together: fall steelhead fishing on the Deschutes River. A near religious experience for many, but for the rest of us a great time to learn about one of our iconic northwestern species. 

Steelhead trout (Oncorhynchus mykiss) are native, ocean-going (anadromous) rainbow trout. Fresh from the north Pacific, these world travelers are bright chrome in color, hence the name steelhead. Interestingly steelhead, like their non-ocean going relatives, will develop a streak of rainbowish red on their sides after an extended period back in their home river.

Steelhead live throughout the Northwest and are considered to have two “runs,” or times of year when they are swimming upstream from the Ocean. The “summer” run steelhead beginning swimming towards their birth streams as early as March and as late as November. All steelhead that return to rivers east of the Cascades are considered summer run fish. Eastern Oregon’s iconic run takes place on the Deschutes River where steelhead return from the ocean starting in July and continue into December.

A typical Deschutes River steelhead is 6-8 lbs and can live for 3-4 years. They like deep, slow pools for overwintering and need clean, silt-free river gravels for spawning or laying their eggs. They often find these spawning grounds in the smaller creeks that flow into the Deschutes, including the upper basin’s Whychus Creek near Sisters. Surprisingly its only been since 2012, that steelhead have once again been able to reach upper basin creeks.

Steelhead were effectively blocked from their spawning and rearing grounds in 1958 when dams were built near Madras on the Deschutes River. Passage facilities ended up being ineffective and hatcheries became the substitute. Then in 2004, dam managers Portland General Electric and the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs made a historic commitment to restore fish passage. 

In retrospect, this was a game changer for our native fish. Local agencies and organizations began preparing for the return of steelhead to critical tributaries like Whychus Creek—a creek believed to have once provided half of the upper basin’s steelhead. With Central Oregon booming, habitat protection and restoration became a priority. The goal: create the habitat conditions necessary for the steelhead to thrive and succeed once they were finally able to return.

Ten years later, a great deal of work has been done and the fish are slowly beginning to return. More than eight miles of Whychus Creek are now permanently protected for steelhead and other wildlife by the Deschutes Land Trust. Water has been returned to the creek thanks to a local water trust and several major creek restoration projects have drastically improved habitat. Hundreds of thousands of steelhead fry have been released in the creek since 2007. In 2013, a radio tag from a steelhead was found in Whychus Creek at Deschutes Land Trust protected Rimrock Ranch. Its presence suggests steelhead are returning to their natal streams for the first time in 50 years—a cause for celebration indeed.

Though much work remains to rebuild our wild steelhead runs, the story of steelhead is relevant to all Central Oregonians—flyfisher or not. History is in the making as we watch an iconic species that defines the Northwest make a triumphant return.

Read about the Land Trust's Campaign for Whychus Creek to learn how you can help the salmon and steelhead, songbirds and eagles that depend on Whychus Creek.

Extra Credit: How can steelhead and rainbow trout be the same species? O. mykiss develop differently depending on their environment. While all O. mykiss hatch in gravel-bottomed, fast-flowing, well-oxygenated rivers and streams, some stay in fresh water all their lives. These fish are called rainbow trout. The steelhead that migrate to the ocean develop a much more pointed head, become more silvery in color, and typically grow much larger than the rainbow trout that remain in freshwater.