Glut of Applegate fish presents dilemma

For a two-week stretch last month, fly-fishing guide Josh White and his clients couldn't get out of the way of winter steelhead on the Applegate River, even if they wanted to.

After two months of low, clear water with few steelhead in sight, this major Rogue River tributary swelled with water and fresh fish. Most were hatchery fish more than willing to bite nymphs and egg patterns early and often during a two-week stretch in late March.

"We had some really good days. I shouldn't even say how many fish though," says White, 34, of Grants Pass.

"OK, well, during one week I know we hooked at least 100," he says. "There were tons of hatchery fish showing up at the end of the season."

Then, just as it was getting hot, the season ended on the Applegate.

Anglers such as White didn't catch and kill enough hatchery winter steelhead on the Applegate before the March 31 season closure, creating a glut of excess fish that will require some creative handling to keep these fish bred for the barbecue from ending up in a landfill.

Already the fish trap at the base of Applegate Dam has captured 1,328 steelhead, the most by this date since 2004 and way more than the 300 adults needed for broodstock — and almost all of those are wild fish.

"We probably caught more steelhead in the Applegate than anybody," says David Pease, the interim manager at Cole Rivers Hatchery, where Applegate winter steelhead are spawned and reared.

And it's only going to get worse.

The run actually peaks in April, after angling has closed. On average, only 44 percent of the total steelhead reach the trap by now. So Pease can expect to capture more than 3,000 winter steelhead by the time the run ends in May.

That would be the fourth highest in the past 20 years, swelling Cole Rivers holding ponds that will soon be needed for young spring chinook, summer steelhead and rainbow trout set for future releases.

Unlike salmon, which are classified as food fish and can be sold, steelhead are classified as game fish and cannot be sold. But they can be given away.

Washington-based American-Canadian Fisheries is set today to haul away nearly 600 excess males — to be filleted and vacuum-sealed for the Oregon Food Bank, Pease says.

Two-hundred-fifty excess females Thursday received a better fate. They had their eggs stripped and were released into the Rogue River at TouVelle State Park.

This renders them unable to spawn with wild steelhead and gives them a chance reach the ocean and return next year as bigger adults.

More than 300 others will go to local schools for in-class dissections, Pease says.

That likely leaves a few hundred excess males that will be too ripe even to smoke for your ex-mother-in-law.

"Those will probably have to go to the landfill," Pease says.

That's not what anyone had in mind for a hatchery program that releases 150,000 smolts yearly at the base of Applegate Dam to make up for wild production lost by the building of Applegate Dam in 1980.

White says he has an easy solution.

"They really need to open the Applegate for fishing in April," White says.

That's been an Applegate steelheaders' mantra for decades, but Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife biologists have resisted that largely because of the unusual circumstances of the Applegate.

It's unique in Oregon to have a hatchery program like this — on a stream with heavy steelhead spawning in the mainstem where fishing from a boat or other floating device is illegal.

Extending the fishing season into April would require anglers to tip-toe around spawning steelhead and their redds in search of more hatchery fish. That's something most steelheaders would agree is a bad deal because it risks harming wild steelhead eggs for the chance to catch more hatchery fish.

"I'm not aware of another river in Oregon that would have this challenge like we have on the Applegate," says Dan VanDyke, the ODFW's Rogue District fish biologist.

For years, excess steelhead were released into Applegate Lake, but fish-health experts worried about spreading diseases like IHN, so that's no longer an option, VanDyke says.

The best option, VanDyke says, is to get more anglers fishing more spots on the Applegate during March, but landowners largely have been resistant to welcoming fishermen to their banks.

"One of the keys to improving fishing is access," VanDyke says. "That's something we're always looking for."

But anglers can go one step further and do their civic duty by killing and keeping legal limits of hatchery steelhead on places like the Applegate.

After all, they're spawned, reared and released to end up on barbecues, not under bulldozers.

"That's what they're there for," VanDyke says.

Reach reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470 or email mfreeman@mailtribune.com. Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/MarkCFreeman


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