Beginning about late January, winter steelhead raised in Douglas County near the end of a long journey home.
The hatchery steelhead swim up the fish ladder on Canyon Creek, where they are held in a trap. Volunteers net them and then transfer this important natural resource to a 200-gallon recirculating tank secured in a truck.
They move the fish from Canyonville to the Rock Creek Hatchery on the North Umpqua River near Idleyld Park. The fish are spawned, and the resulting eggs are incubated. These young descendants grow here until they are one-year-old smolts.
Then, the next phase of their life cycle begins.
Back in Canyonville, at two acclimation sites, staff and volunteers care for those young hatchery fish in ponds for three weeks. It’s just enough time that they’ll remember it later.
“That’s what’s been shown to give them the best imprinting on the little fish,” said Evan Leonetti, STEP biologist in the Umpqua Watershed District. “That’s our goal, to make sure these hatchery fish are coming back.”
Winter steelhead success
The Canyonville location is meant for brood collection and smolt – or juvenile fish – acclimation, and is an important part of winter steelhead production in the South Umpqua, Leonetti said. The program is a success.
“Without the Canyonville facility, we’d really have a difficult time providing winter steelhead for fishermen,” Leonetti said.
The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife works closely with a couple partners – the Umpqua Fisherman’s Association and the Cow Creek Band of Umpqua Tribe of Indians – to ensure abundant numbers of fish. The Cow Creek tribe also acclimates some of the steelhead in its own pond a few miles downstream, Leonetti said.
The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife schedules three or four release dates each year, starting in late February and continuing at three-week intervals into about late April, Leonetti said.
They release the fish into Canyon Creek, and those steelhead swim from there into the South Umpqua River and then out to the Pacific Ocean. They will return home in about two years.
The acclimation facility’s fish releases have become an opportunity to introduce kids to the natural resource, Leonetti said. Student groups attend each event, where they learn important skills and get to see the fish up close.
All of the children can hold a steelhead in their hands. The students help staff and volunteers weigh and measure the fish. They learn about life cycle, fish biology, invasive species, fishing, tribal culture and boating safety.
“I think it really gives them more of an appreciation of the world around them,” Leonetti said.
The released fish, an estimated 90,000 this year, add to the fishery in the South Umpqua and the Mainstem Umpqua River, Leonetti said.
They typically contain a genetic component from wild steelhead. About 20 to 60 percent of ODFW’s broodstock is wild, Leonetti said. To ensure that, about a dozen certified anglers collect wild fish in tanks in their drift boats and deliver them live to the Rock Creek Hatchery.
“That’s a very important part of the program because it reinvigorates the genetic pool,” Leonetti said.
Carefully developed hatchery programs enable the state to protect wild fish while still raising and releasing hatchery fish, Leonetti said.
No wild salmon, trout or steelhead caught on the South Umpqua can be kept, Leonetti said. This makes the return of hatchery winter steelhead an especially important resource.
“Without a hatchery program on the South Umpqua, we wouldn’t have steelhead available for folks to harvest,” Leonetti said. “An important part of a lot of people’s fishing experience is being able to take something home for dinner.”