It's beginning to look a lot like Christmas - as least as far as winter steelhead anglers are concerned.
Coastal rivers early this week were as brim-full as a shopping center parking lot - and that gush of water is almost certain to trigger the start of winter steelhead runs, which state fisheries biologists expect to be "better than average" this year.
Traditionally, Christmas is when winter steelhead fishing kicks into high gear in Oregon. But blue bird days and a lack of rain kept the river levels low and the steelhead fishing neutral during the first half of December.
Recent "gully-washer" rains appear to have put things back on schedule.
"They worked the trap at the Alsea Hatchery on Monday, and they had 175 winter steelhead in there. That seems pretty good for this early in the year," said Bob Buckman, the state's district fish biologist in Newport.
Buckman said he's "cautiously optimistic" about the winter steelhead prospects in the four major rivers in his district - the Alsea, Siletz, Siuslaw and Yaquina.
His counterparts responsible for the Umpqua, Coos/Millicoma and Coquille river systems also expect good winter steelhead returns. Catches should begin to pick up as soon as coastal streams drop back into fishable shape.
However, no one looks for a repeat of last winter's huge hatchery returns. So many fish returned in 2001-02 that the state temporarily increased the steelhead bag limit, from two fish per day to three.
This season, the Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission is giving winter steelhead anglers the gift of additional angling opportunities.
On the south coast, several streams that had been under "catch-and-release only" rules for winter steelhead are being re-opened to a limited harvest.
Anglers will be allowed to keep one "wild" fish (with adipose fin intact) per day, up to a maximum of five per year on the Chetco, Pistol, Elk and Sixes rivers, plus Euchre and Hunter creeks. Those streams were closed to the retention of steelhead several years ago after an "endangered species" petition was filed for steelhead and coho salmon.
However, scientific assessments conducted following that filing indicate the runs in the south coast streams "are real healthy and can provide some modest harvest," said Rhine Messmer, recreational fisheries section manager for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife.
The Curry County streams join the North Fork of the Umpqua River in being the only Oregon waterways where the harvest of non-fin-clipped winter steelhead is allowed.
Another new opportunity for anglers comes in the form of a temporary rule that opens an additional 700 feet of river frontage on the North Fork Alsea River to fishing.
That may not sound like much - until you consider the additional water is adjacent to the fish ladder leading into Alsea Hatchery and is often thick with steelhead.
The ODFW decided to change the angling "deadlines" near the hatchery as part of its effort to reduce conflict between crowds of anglers and nearby private landowners. In addition, far more steelhead than are needed for egg production are expected to return to the hatchery, allowing protections to be loosened.
"We've made a real effort to put up very clear signage to steer anglers away from sensitive private properties," Buckman said. "And by providing more opportunity on the hatchery grounds, we hope to alleviate the tendency for people to trespass."
The temporary emergency rule was adopted too late to be included in the "2003 Oregon Sport Fishing Regulations" booklet, which hit sporting goods stores this week.
So North Fork Alsea anglers are urged to stop by the hatchery and pick up a flier detailing the new rules before wetting a line.
Meanwhile, there's a couple of caveats attached to the rosy outlook for winter steelhead. Predicting returns of winter steelhead has proven to be more difficult than any other sea-run species.
"There aren't really any good indicators," Messmer said. "With steelhead, we don't have a previous return to gauge it by, like we do with jack salmon. And our coho salmon escapement - which has been really exciting this fall - doesn't necessarily track with winter steelhead."
Nevertheless, Messmer said, "we have every reason to expect we're going to see good runs this year up and down the coast," just because there's been plenty of food in the ocean and water conditions were good when this winter's "two-salt" steelhead were smolts.
And even when there are plenty of fish available, winter fishing is always susceptible to the whims of Nature, which often leave streams too high and muddy or too low and clear for good fishing.
Here's a run-down on the outlook for coastal winter steelhead streams closest to the Eugene area, including the best river levels for fishing and where you're most likely to catch "keeper" (adipose fin-clipped) fish:
SILETZ RIVER - Stocked with 50,000 fin-clipped hatchery smolts, all of which are released from an acclimation facility on a tributary creek near Moonshine Park. Expect about 80 percent of the winter steelhead caught to be hatchery-reared.
The Siletz is at "bank-full" levels when the gauge reads 12 feet. It was at 7 feet Wednesday, after peaking at 10 1/2 feet on Monday.
"You can start fishing the Siletz (when water levels are) between 7 and 8 feet right around Moonshine Park," Buckman said. "The boat drifts downstream from there are typically best around 6 feet. As flows drop, the better fishing tends to be in the lower river."
YAQUINA RIVER - Stocked with 20,000 hatchery-reared smolts, which are released in Big Elk Creek, a few miles downstream from Harlan. There is no river gauge on the Yaquina River.
ALSEA RIVER - The Alsea is typically one of the best early season producers of winter steelhead in December and January, as Alsea Hatchery stock tends to return earlier than steelhead in most other central coast river basins.
A total of 120,000 hatchery smolts are released in the Alsea, and this is the first year that all of the "two salts" will be returning to Alsea Hatchery. (In prior years, some smolts were released at Fall Creek Hatchery).
"You can fish the North Fork around the hatchery when flows are 7 to 8 feet," Buckman said, "and at those high flows you can also get in some good plunking in the lower river."
The North Fork Alsea is closed to boat angling, and the uppermost boat drifts on the main river are fishable at about 7 feet, Buckman said, but the best drift fishing throughout the river is generally when the gauge is at 5 to 6 feet.
The Alsea gauge was reading 8 feet Wednesday, after peaking at 15 on Monday.
SIUSLAW RIVER - The Siuslaw system this year will have the return from 85,000 hatchery-reared smolts, of which 50,000 were released near Whitaker Creek and 35,000 near Greenleaf on Lake Creek.
In addition, 8,000 clipped steelhead were allowed to migrate naturally from a volunteer-run Salmon Trout Enhancement Program hatchery on Letz Creek.
"We could have 500-plus steelhead coming back from that release," STEP biologist Jeff Ziller said. "It's actually going to be a very interesting year, because we may end up creating a fishery in the upper Siuslaw Basin" (above Whitaker Creek.)
An even bigger return is possible next winter, as the STEP facility was able to release 18,000 smolts earlier this year, after overcoming predation problems caused by otters raiding the rearing ponds.
The Siuslaw run tends to peak in late February and March, but Ziller said some steelhead already were being caught in tidewater prior to the recent high water.
Fishing in the Siuslaw and Lake Creek is consider best for "plunking" when the Mapleton gauge reads between 8 and 11 feet. Drift fishing is best at river levels between 4 1/2 and 7 feet. The gauge was reading just less than 10 feet Wednesday, after peaking at more than 14 feet.
UMPQUA RIVER - The Umpqua River and its tributaries are consistently among the leading winter steelhead producers on the central coast. It's also the one river system that had enough water in it to lure winter steelhead above tidewater well before Thanksgiving.
A good mix of "year classes" in recent years lead biologist Dave Loomis to expect another good run this winter. There already have been reports of wild fish in the 20-pound range being caught and released near Sawyer's Rapid.
The management plan for the Umpqua calls for releasing about 120,000 clipped winter-run steelhead smolts a year. But only about 88,000 were available for the year-class that will be returning as 2-year-olds this winter. All of those are acclimated and released at Canyon Creek on the South Umpqua.
The run of wild winter steelhead into the North Umpqua is strong enough that the ODFW allows "bait waters" anglers to harvest one non-fin-clipped steelhead per day, up to a maximum of five per year, from Jan. 1 through April 30.
The Umpqua is considered suitable for plunking at levels between 6 and 12 feet on the gauge at Elkton, with drift fishing best at levels of 3 to 5 feet. That gauge was back down to 9 feet Wednesday, after spiking up to 18 feet the previous day.
COOS/MILLICOMA RIVERS - The ODFW releases 130,000 winter steelhead smolts in the Coos basin, split between five acclimation sites on the South Fork of the Coos River and the Millicoma River.
Probably the most popular fishery, according to district biologist Mike Gray, is near the Big Creek smolt release site, where Big Creek empties into the South Coos. The lower five miles of the river above tidewater also gets a lot of pressure.
Other popular sites are near smolt release sites at Hodges and Rodine Creek on the East Fork of the Millicoma and near the Millicoma Interpretive Center on the West Fork.
The Coos basin fishery tends to peak between mid-January and early February, Gray said.
"We've been telling folks we should have a bunch of steelhead in when the water drops back down," he said.
There are no automated river gauges on the Coos or Millicoma rivers.
COQUILLE RIVER - A total of 115,000 smolts are divided among the South, North and East forks of the Coquille, with the South Fork receiving about 70,000 of those.
On the South Fork, hatchery fish tend to congregate near the two release sites - Beaver Creek, about five miles below the town of Powers, and Woodward Creek, immediately below Powers.
"There's a relatively high percentage of hatchery fish caught in that area," Gray said.
On the North Fork the acclimation site is at Laverne Park. On the East Fork, it's near Hantz Creek.
There are two gauges on the South Fork Coquille River. The most useful for boaters is the one at Powers, which reads 3 to 4 feet when the river is best of drift fishing. Plunkers find the river most fishable at 6 to 10 feet.
MIKE STAHLBERG / The Register-Guard A rule change will work to the anglers' advantage on the North Fork Alsea River. The wild winter steelhead is the prized catch of the season. MIKE STAHLBERG / The Register-Guard Guide Dean Finnerty nets a steelhead for a client on the Umpqua River.