Upper Rogue River anglers could catch some peculiar-looking steelhead this winter.

Upper Rogue River anglers could catch some peculiar-looking steelhead this winter.

Spawned-out wild summer steelhead with holes punched in their gill plates and spawned out "retread" summer steelhead heading back to sea are in the Rogue now thanks to some clever steelhead-handling at Cole Rivers Hatchery.

Hatchery workers on Feb. 15 spawned a batch of summer steelhead at the Trail-area facility, and some of the spawned-out fish were released to give them a shot at returning next year as bigger, better steelhead.

After they were spawned, 45 female hatchery steelhead and 14 male wild steelhead were loaded onto a hatchery liberation truck, says Dave Pease, the facility's acting manager.

Another 297 hatchery females were stripped of their eggs and released, Pease says. The fish were in excess of the hatchery's needs, so they were cleaned of their eggs before release so they wouldn't spawn with wild fish.

The practice of "stripping" is akin to squeezing the last of the toothpaste out of a tube. Each of the fish was given the tell-tale hole punch in a gill plate to denote them as "retreads," fish that have run the Rogue gauntlet to reach the hatchery, only to be returned to the river.

That creates the strange phenomenon of a "wild retread."

"We punch them, no matter what, when we release them to make sure we know we've already handled them," Pease says.

The fish were trucked to the TouVelle State Park boat ramp and released, Pease says.

Recycling spawned-out and excess steelhead is an alternative to killing them. It is possible because, unlike salmon, about 40 percent of Rogue summer steelhead survive after spawning and return to the ocean.

It will be catch-and-release fishing only for sturgeon in the Willamette River after anglers reached their 2012 quota last weekend when the fishery opened, thanks to a massive turnout of fishers.

In just two days, anglers caught 1,535 sturgeon — almost 90 percent of the 1,768 allowed for the Willamette this year, according to the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife.

The catch rate was about the same as last year, but more than twice as many anglers hit the Willamette, according to ODFW.

The fishery was set to re-open today, but ODFW biologists predicted another 700 to 800 fish could be caught with the additional day of fishing, and that would have exceeded the quota substantially.

This year's quota for the Willamette was down 30 percent from last year, due to continued declines in the number of legal-sized sturgeon.

The rule effects sturgeon fishing in the Willamette downstream from Willamette Falls, including the Willamette Channel.

Sturgeon fishing is still allowed on the upper Willamette River, and retention of white sturgeon is permitted on the Columbia from the mouth upstream to Bonneville Dam and in The Dalles, John Day and McNary reservoirs.

Reach reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470 or mfreeman@mailtribune.com.