So I was sitting in my home office working today when I heard something that put a big smile on my face. I had to listen carefully just to make sure, but after a couple minutes there it was again, the unmistakable spring song of a male cardinal. He was sitting in the big pine which grows just outside my deck window letting all the other fellas know that my back yard was now his exclusive territory. Whether you realize it or not, we steelheaders are scientists of sorts. We rely on all sorts of signs to let us know that the steelheading season is upon us; in short, we practice the ageless art of Phenology.
Phenology is the study of the seasonal timing of life cycle events. You practice phenology when you record the date a certain plant flowers, a tree's leaves emerge, an insect hatches, a migratory bird appears on its nesting grounds, or when a cardinal begins singing it's spring song. The dates on which these happen each year are affected by factors such as daylength, temperature, and rainfall; and they tell you a lot about the annual cycle of things.
Hmmmm... daylength, temperature and rainfall - sounds like stuff a steelheader might be intensely interested in. If you are not, you should be. Right now, the increasing length of daylight is working it's magic not only on cardinals, chickadees and jays; but on steelhead and kamloops. That change, increasing photoperiod to be technical, is triggering changes in the fish that will morph them from single wallflower into reproductive machines: Egg and sperm production, color changes, kyping and migration to near-shore locations are all occurring now. Reports are coming in of increasing kamloops catches along the lower shore. Mixed in with those fish are steelhead.
I'm always paying attention to what's going on around me this time of year. It's not a conscious thing, I just seem to be tuned in without having to think about it. On warm mornings starting in late February and early March, the spring songs of the cardinal, chickadee and Bluejay will always turn my mind towards steelheading. Once these signs begin, I know it's time to start the vigil which will ultimately culminate with trips to the Shore as these songs occur on a schedule just as surely as the runs do.
One thing I begin to do now is to watch the gauges for signs of ice-pack movement. It's a little early yet, so I'll only check in perhaps once a week. What I'm looking for are signatures which look like this:
When you start seeing gauge signatures as depicted above, it's a sure sign that the runs are drawing near. What you are seeing is the daily melt signature of the streams. As temps increase during daylight hours, it's adding meltwater to the tribs which accelerates the overall melting of the ice. Using phenology, I know that the average ice-out on the lower shore falls around the 2nd of April with the upper shore falling around the 10th; and the runs commencing shortly thereafter.
All of which is why I had a big smile on my face today, I know the runs are just around the corner. How do I know? Why, a cardinal told me so, and he hasn't been wrong yet!