An Early Start To Winter Steelheading?

In this wacky weather year in the Northwest, where winter was spring, spring was late winter, and late summer was midfall, winter steelheading may have started in September on one river system in northern Puget Sound.

An unusual number of bright steelhead have shown up at the Marblemount Hatchery on the upper Skagit’s Cascade River in recent days.

So are they seriously early winter-runs or stray summer-runs from nearby rivers?

“They look more winter-run than summer-run,” says Steve Stout who’s worked at the facility for nearly two decades and began his career there in 1978.

He says that in recent days three entered the trap and he’s heard of another 10 or so have been caught below the hatchery.

The ones he’s seen are “6- to 8-pounders” and look like “typical winter-runs, young, nice-looking fish,” he says, though one was a little lean.

“There’s always one or two caught during our coho fishery, but we really don’t see them come in until Thanksgiving,” says Stout.

Summer-run steelhead aren’t released on the Skagit system, though they are to the south, on the North Fork Stillaguamish and the Skykomish, he says.

Tagging studies have shown the species is more likely to stray than coho or Chinook, also raised at Marblemount (a least 275 to 300 silvers are back to the hatchery, Stout says), but DNA samples would determine their origin.

“My guess is they’re from here,” Stout ventures.

That means they would indeed be winter-run steelhead — in September.

There’s another twist in this mystery: The unusual return of a type of steelhead not seen north of Oregon’s Rogue River.

“We’ve also seen steelhead jacks,” Stout says. “We’ve never seen that before.”

Two have returned, he says.

OK, Steve, so, what the hell is going on on the Skagit?!?

“I have no idea,” Stout says, laughingly blaming ocean conditions, that catch-all category for problems with salmon and steelhead runs.

“I know how to grow them. I know how to plant them, but I don’t know what they do after that,” he says.

In the meanwhile, if you’ve got a jones to wet a line way early for steelhead in Skagit County, you might hit the Cascade, though angling’s anything but hot.

“The nice thing about it is that every once in awhile a guy gets a nice surprise at the end of his line,” Stout says.

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