By Kirk Blaine – February 6, 2023
As 2022 has come to a close and we have embarked 2023, the Steamboaters have been reflecting upon the work we completed this past year. From working to restore an all wild steelhead North Umpqua to increasing pressure on the owners of Winchester Dam, The Steamboaters are fighting to help conserve and protect the North Umpqua River and those wonderful fish that call it home.
2022 started rough. We experienced a relatively low winter steelhead return over Winchester dam, seeing 5,359 wild fish compared to the outstanding year of 2020 where the North Umpqua saw 10,131 winter steelhead. We received a late push of rain in April of 2022 to help bump the rivers up and get any straggling steelhead up to their native spawning grounds.
The spring continued to see copious amounts of water to help rejuvenate the entire Umpqua basin. Flows remained high through the early summer, worrying folks who were actively monitoring the wild summer steelhead that returned to the “Bend Pool” up Steamboat Creek. It wasn’t until mid to late June that flows dropped and the caretaker, Ed Kukimoto, observed the first fish of the year returning to the basin.
Summer continued with sustained flows of what seemed to be good fishing. Anglers were encountering fish consistently, a welcomed change from a closed river in 2021. Flows remained relatively stable, and the water temperatures did not get excessive until late summer. Only a few days did the temperatures reach dangerously high levels for fish. Unfortunately, we as anglers stand out at how good we are at catching fish, regardless of population size. Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife counted a total of 1,346 wild steelhead over Winchester Dam. The second lowest run of wild fish ever on record (factoring in the harvest of wild summer steelhead below Winchester Dam pre 90’s). Through anecdotal observations and personal experience, it is likely we caught most of those 1,300 fish that returned this year. A reminder that we must practice the best catch and release techniques and actively limit our negative impacts.
Through early 2022 we worked collaboratively with other groups including The North Umpqua Foundation to help restore an all-wild steelhead North Umpqua. We were successful in encouraging the Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission to adopt this change for future management within the basin. An encouraging decision that will provide long-term positive effects to wild summer steelhead, maybe not for us, but for future generations who wish to continue to interact with these iconic fish.
Unfortunately, Douglas County and a local fishing guide decided to file a lawsuit against the commission, halting the implementation of the decision. The status quo will continue until the courts make a final decision in the next four months.
The Steamboatyers continue to work to bring the rule of the law to Winchester Dam. Something new board member and WaterWatch Southern Oregon Program Director Jim McCarthy has been monumental in pushing forward. We are actively involved in litigation with the Winchester Water Control District over the take of ESA Listed coho salmon. There continues to be a massive hole in the south abutment of the dam. An inappropriate piece of conveyor belt covers the connection between the dam face and the fish ladder. Rebar is exposed on the fish ladder stem walls just below this false attraction flow. We have been referring to this as the fish spearing station. Winchester Dam still fails to meet state and federal fish passage regulations. I share this to illustrate the complete neglect dam owners have for our fish.
Owners intend to repair the dam summer of 2023. They have applied for and received a permit to block fish passage from August 1- August 28, the tail end of historic peak summer steelhead migration. Steamboaters are discussing this obsurd decision by ODFW to allow these actions. In 60’s and 70’s owners were allowed to block the dam for almost a month, causing complete outrage among fishermen and the community. We will continue to ask ODFW to reconsider this decision.
Lastly, late last fall, the Steamboaters partnered with the National Forest Foundation and the United States Forest Service (USFS), Umpqua National Forest, to host a tree planting up Copeland Creek, a tributary of the North Umpqua River. Around 25 volunteers, both Steamboaters and gracious public volunteers, planted around 500 trees on 1.5 miles of a decommissioned road. This work will decrease sediment runoff, keeps summer water temps down, and increases instream flows. All positive improvements for our wild fish.
As an organization we will continue this habitat work in 2023. We met with USFS Biologists before the new year to discuss how our work could benefit the forest. We plan to apply for numerous habitat grants and will continue to help with riparian planting post Archie Creek and Jack Creek fires.
2023 will be big year for the Steamboaters. We have embarked on crafting a three to five year strategic plan outlining projects or areas we will focus our work on. We will continue our advocacy for an all wild steelhead North Umpqua. The pressure will continue on Winchester Dam, and we look forward to continuing to work with our partners to improve habitat in the upper watershed.
The Steamboaters will continue to host social gatherings to help share our conservation efforts and create a community working to protect and enhance the North Umpqua River.
All this to say, we couldn’t do this work without your support. To all the new and historic members, we thank you. Your consistent advocacy and willingness to be apart of the Steamboaters is what makes our work possible. We thank you for this and hope you continue to be a positive voice for the North Umpqua and the fish that call it home. In June, we plan to host a celebration of our work and gather with all Steamboaters and interested folks on the banks of the North Umpqua River. We hope to see you there.
If you have any questions or thoughts about our work, we encourage you to reach out today. Send us and email at Steamboaersboard@gmail.com.