Apr 9th, 2020
January through March mark the prime winter steelhead months across Oregon, and in particular, at Renton River Adventures’ Umpqua Winter Basecamp. Dillon Renton, head guide at the basecamp, passed along some words and images from the past three months of fishing this winter. Thank you, Dillon!
This winter was one of the most polar, challenging, and yet rewarding seasons in my history of guiding. Conditions never felt optimal. The window of ideal flows passed by quickly between an early winter of high water and a later season of low and clear conditions. Rain was either non-stop and overwhelming or just completely absent. By the end of March, we were guiding in T-shirts and sun hoodies, whereas in January, it took two rain jackets to stay dry throughout the day! Winter steelhead season is a manic, often painful pursuit. But we always seem to come back and no matter the conditions, reflect on the experience with smiles.
Winter showed up in a big way at the beginning of January. Rain and snow amounts felt to be increasing at an above-average rate, with rivers like the North and South Umpqua reaching flood stages in a matter of days. With levels far beyond fishable in most of the Umpqua basin, all of our fishing was done on a small system on the Oregon Coast. Most days required a healthy amount of chainsaw work, portages and the inevitable dragging of the raft up a hillside to the trailer. With any steelhead fishing, there are no golden tickets, but this small system provided for some of the most exciting fishing of the year. There’s no doubt that close proximity to the ocean makes for some of the most aggressive winter steelhead encounters. It was well worth the effort and the decision to not cancel. Winter teaches guides and anglers to stay dynamic. Finding green water in the midst of a storm cycle is exciting enough and finding a fish makes the extra effort more than worth it!
As February began, the winter weather started to slow and the North Umpqua came back into shape. Water was high, but after so much flow through the system, the clarity was great as the drop began. The river was big and fish spread out quickly. It felt good to return to the flywater section and the rest of the North Umpqua after chasing fishable conditions along the Oregon coast.
March started with low water and stayed low through the remainder of the season. The silver lining was fishing the lower South Umpqua and the main stem Umpqua. The flywater section of the North Umpqua was flowing at near summer-levels.
The lower South Umpqua and the main stem Umpqua are different to the rest of the basin in the sense that very little spawning occurs in these reaches. Instead, fish are passing through to reach upper stretches of the two forks to spawn in colder and more suitable habitat. The fish that we catch in these sections are some of the more memorable of the season. These travelling fish were in great shape, bright, and consistently took long runs. Both rivers are very prone to blowing out, but with the low water conditions this season, they stayed in shape through almost all of March.
Among other salmonids, the South Umpqua was historically home to spring and fall Chinook, as well as summer and winter steelhead. Today, summer steelhead are extinct and spring Chinook populations remain near or under 100 fish. Wild winter steelhead still return every year in healthy numbers in addition to hatchery steelhead. The only hatchery steelhead program in the Umpqua basin is on the South Umpqua with most of these fish passing through the lower section by January.
South Umpqua steelhead tend to sit in water very ideal for the swung fly. It is a smaller river than its counterpart to the North and easier to present a fly to many of the holding zones. After casting large, weighted leeches in the flywater or main stem Umpqua, it is a pleasure casting an unweighted fly on a lighter sink tip. Having a contingent plan in a low water season is very comforting. It is not every season that we get to fish the lower South Umpqua due to it being prone to blow outs.
As we experienced in January, being able to be versatile and have options proved valuable. Winter steelhead season can be a real mind-game. Whether it is high water or low, sunny or cloudy, stormy or clear skies. Trying to choose the “right option” any given day can be exhausting. The Umpqua, North Umpqua, and South Umpqua comprise a massive system with over a hundred miles of river and dozens of slides and boat ramps. I feel lucky to guide here and hope to continue sharing the experience with anglers each winter.
Thanks to everyone that joined us this season. Let’s all get through the challenge at hand and fish together in the close future. Hopefully, by summer or fall we can return to the rivers we love. Please feel free to reach out to Fly Water Travel to talk more about summer and fall opportunities.