Grande Ronde gets Grand Experimentby Keith Ridler
The Bulletin of Bend Oregon, November 6, 2003
These volunteer anglers had an enviable assignment: catch steelhead.
And they did, fortunately, enabling the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife to begin a program to improve the fall steelhead fishing on the Grande Ronde River.
"It's an experiment to see if we can modify the run time and get more of the fish back here earlier," said Brad Smith, an ODFW biologist based in Enterprise. "We had folks who fly-fished and folks who pitched lures and folks who were bait fishermen."
About 40 volunteer anglers landed 105 hatchery steelhead on the Grande Ronde between Oct. 13 and Oct. 24. The anglers then placed the live fish in large, plastic tubes and anchored the tubes back in the river near the bank. The next morning, an ODFW hatchery truck drove the river collecting the steelhead to take them to the Wallowa Hatchery in Enterprise.
"We were shooting for a hundred, so we just squeaked that in," said Smith. "We did well. I was pleased with the outcome."
The fish will be held at the hatchery until being spawned next spring, and the progeny will be reared at the Irrigon Hatchery. In the spring of 2005 when the fish become smolts (about 6 to 9 inches long) they will be released into the Grande Ronde to begin their ocean odyssey.
"This is not something that is going to happen overnight," Smith said. "We're looking down the road two generations before we have a program firmly in place."
All of the smolts will have a coded wire tag inserted to help biologists track their return. Some of the smolts will also be implanted with passive integrated transponder tags, a more sophisticated device that emits a signal when the fish swims through an electronic field. Those fish can be tracked as they swim by fish ladders on the Columbia and Snake rivers.
The first adults from the release are expected to return to the Grande Ronde in the fall of 2006. The tags will allow biologists to see how these fish compare with the existing Wallowa Hatchery stock.
About 860,000 hatchery steelhead are released in the Grande Ronde each year, Smith said. Typically, about 8,000 to 10,000 survive their journey to the ocean and back. But of those, only about 25 percent return to the Grande Ronde in the fall. Biologists would like to see that number closer to 50 percent of the run.
"We have quite a few fish that dally around the Columbia and Snake rivers and don't enter the Grande Ronde until the spring," said Smith. "We don't want to eliminate that portion of the run, but we want to enhance the front of it because it's a very popular and productive fall fishery. A lot of fly fishermen are down there but also all kinds of anglers."
The size of the wild run of steelhead in the Grande Ronde is about the same as the hatchery run, Smith said, numbering about 8,000 to 10,000 strong. Unlike the hatchery run, however, more than 50 percent of the wild fish enter the Grande Ronde in the fall.
"Normally, the fall fishery is weighted toward wild fish," Smith said.
The reason the current hatchery stock tends to return in the spring is because that was when the brood stock was collected during the start of the program in the 1970s.
"When they collected brood stock from Snake River dams, they did that in the spring," said Smith.
"They actually initiated the Wallowa hatchery stock with steelhead that didn't get to Ice Harbor Dam until spring — February and March. So that stock has a tendency, as a result, to be dalliers. They snoop around the Deschutes and John Day and Washington tributaries, spend more time fiddling around in the Columbia and Snake. They just have a tendency to do that."
The Deschutes, in particular, sees a fair number of Grande Ronde hatchery steelhead.
"That stock and that program has been a significant contributor to Deschutes non-origin fish," said Steve Pribyl, an ODFW biologist based in The Dalles.
Other steelhead hatchery programs, including hatcheries in Idaho, also produce fish that end up in the Deschutes. In fact, more "out-of-basin strays," as they're called, often enter the Deschutes River than the number of Deschutes hatchery steelhead and wild steelhead combined.
Most wild steelhead runs in the Columbia River Basin, including the Deschutes run, are listed as threatened by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and there is concern that hatchery fish can be detrimental to the success of wild fish populations.
Surveys by the ODFW of Deschutes tributaries to count spawning wild fish have in fact found hatchery fish.
"We've been catching some flak from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration because the Wallowa stock tends to show up in the Lower Deschutes in greater numbers," Smith said. But if more Grande Ronde hatchery steelhead returned earlier, "it makes sense those fish wouldn't be in the Deschutes."
Another interesting aspect of the project is that the fish were captured by angling methods. A long-running debate among fishery biologists has been "bitability," or the willingness of hatchery fish to bite on an angler's offering.
Hatchery steelhead that make it to the hatchery are, save for whatever fish might have been caught and released, mostly the result of steelhead that didn't bite. And it's possible that if generations of steelhead are produced from only the mostly non-biters that arrive at the hatchery, then those future generations could also be less likely to bite.
This is all conjecture, Pribyl noted, as no studies have been done. However, because the brood stock for this new program was supplied by anglers, some of whom even supplied fish by skating a dry fly, then it might be possible that the progeny of these steelhead will behave in similar fashion — and go after an angler's offering.
"We can only hope so," said Smith. "There may be some tendency for them to be biters. It's hard to say. There are a lot of things that go into steelhead behavior that I'm not sure I understand at all."
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