2022 has been a welcome improvement for steelhead returns in the Columbia River basin over 2021. While it is still not a big run historically, looking like it will come in around 126K total steelhead (hatchery and wild), it is a big improvement over last years run of only around 72k total steelhead (which was a historically bad run since Bonneville dam was put in).
This year has also been a lucky improvement in water temperatures within the basin as we had a higher snow pack and a cooler/wetter spring throughout the area. The Deschutes river, where I guide steelhead in the summer/fall rarely touched 70 degrees this summer, while last year we saw many days topping out between 72-74 degrees. These were horrible temperatures for the fish (all trout/steelhead/salmon), and led me to cancel many day trips before the river was officially closed by Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife.
Strong salmon returns combined with NOAA's prediction of very favorable and productive ocean conditions has added a breath of optimism for the immediate future of wild steelhead.
However, a healthy dose of reality is still needed to ensure we all keep focused on the long term viability of wild steelhead in the Columbia River basin. While this year is better than last in almost every way, it is still not very good historically. While we have had an open season on the Deschutes following a late opener on August 15th, the John Day river, which historically was one of if not the largest wild summer steelhead run in the state, is closed for the entire season. We have to fight both the shifting baseline and complacency, and keep perspective on what the river system is capable of producing.
From an angling perspective, it's becoming more and more important to me to enjoy the process. I find myself fishing dry flies more than ever, as it's the most enjoyable way to fish whether you get a bite or not. Don't take any encounter with a steelhead for granted, they are all special even if it's just a good take that doesn't get hooked up. When you do get a wild steelhead to hand, take every chance to care for the fish: Fight them hard, keep 'em wet, fish barbless, quick picture and a quick release.
As far as conservation, any chance you get to support the removal of the lower Snake River dams you should jump on it. Salmon and steelhead are being affected by a million variables, many of which are out of our control. The single biggest thing we could do to give salmon and steelhead a chance to thrive in the Columbia river again is removing these dams. This would keep the overall water temperature throughout the system more moderate, and open up miles and miles of cold water habitat.