ASHLAND — With one turn of a lever Thursday, Cole Rivers Hatchery technician Colby Gonzalez turned 351 summer steelhead into rainbow trout and instantly made Emigrant Lake the next big-fish hot spot in Southern Oregon this winter.
A truck full of excess summer steelhead weighing up to 8 pounds each got a ride from the upper Rogue to Emigrant Lake, and it won't be the last steelhead that will be relocated to this lake outside Ashland. Another few dozen summers will follow, and about 200 excess winter steelhead collected at Cole Rivers will go there, as well.
It's the first time in eight years that excess steelhead have avoided a trip to the landfill, because the hatchery has finally closed its books on a disease outbreak that had altered where fish could get released.
A 2006 outbreak of the potentially deadly IHN disease at the hatchery meant that excess fish gathered there could not be planted into Emigrant and Applegate lakes to keep those water bodies clear of the virus.
But Cole Rivers has now been IHN-free for three years, so Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife protocols allow the facility to stock these lakes again.
The first dose of summer steelhead hit Emigrant on Thursday. Later this winter and early spring, Applegate Lake will get 1,000 excess adult Applegate River winter steelhead collected in the fish trap at the base of Applegate Dam.
Though they are adult steelhead that made spawning runs from the ocean, they legally are considered rainbow trout once they're released in those lakes.
"Once they're landlocked, they become trout," says Cole Rivers Manager David Pease.
That's no bother to anglers, who will be plenty happy to catch these fish as soon as this weekend in the lake. Later in the season, some will be found surging up Emigrant feeder tributaries such as Ashland Creek. And even later in the year, some may survive the spawn and return to the reservoir.
The job of trucking these beauties to local lakes keeps Gonzalez and other hatchery workers from feeling like piscatorial Grim Reapers.
"It sure is nicer to drive them to a lake instead of a landfill," Pease says.
The landfill has been the destination for these excess fish since what is known at Cole Rivers as "The Great Escape."
In May 2006, about 60 adult steelhead escaped from a hatchery pen into the bowels of the hatchery's water system. The fish slipped through a loose stop-log at the pen, then up through a series of pipes and into a partially closed valve.
About half of them were caught over the ensuing week by turning off water flows to individual ponds and checking the head gauges to see whether a big steelhead would pop out. A handful swam amok in the pipes for well over a month before they were finally captured or died.
The story could have been humorous — except the AWOL steelhead were infected with Infectious Hematopoietic Necrosis, a naturally occurring virus that had been found earlier that year in adult salmon and steelhead returning to the hatchery.
IHN, a water-borne virus, rarely harms adult salmon, trout or steelhead, but it's deadly to trout and salmon in their infant stages.
IHN is strictly a fish disease, so it has no impact on humans, birds or other warm-blooded animals that ingest the fish or are exposed to infected water.
Special filters helped keep IHN-infected water out of the hatchery's hatch house, but tens of thousands of young rainbows died that year at Cole Rivers from IHN, Pease says.
ODFW has a policy of not stocking "hot" IHN fish in water bodies where the virus has not been detected. It's been found in the Rogue and Applegate rivers and Bear Creek, but not in the reservoirs that feed them.
The agency has been able to juggle trout releases to keep the lakes full of rainbows, but it couldn't relocate excess adult steelhead until the hatchery had gone three straight years without IHN, which happened last year.
Most of the fish released Thursday are ripe for spawning, and many didn't look long for this world. But others look fresher than some fish caught in December on the upper Rogue.
"There are some pretty good-looking fish in there," Gonzalez says.
Those not caught by anglers in the next few weeks likely will dart up tributaries in search of gravel riffles to spawn. About a quarter of summer steelhead survive the spawn and will return to the reservoir as if it were the ocean.
The rest will die in tributaries, adding ocean nutrients to the ecosystem there.
"I certainly think there are ecological benefits," says Dan VanDyke, ODFW's Rogue District fish biologist, who oversees management of Emigrant Lake and the Rogue.
"The tributaries up above these reservoirs evolved with steelhead. It will be good to get some of those ocean nutrients up there, if nothing else."