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Hatchery steelhead released into Emigrant

ASHLAND ' Rogue Valley anglers looking to whet their steelhead appetites now can head to a most unusual locale just outside of Ashland for their January cache of Rogue River steelhead.

Emigrant Creek, a small stream that feeds Emigrant Lake 30 miles from the Rogue, soon will teem with Rogue River hatchery steelhead thanks to a program that puts excess Rogue hatchery steelhead into anglers' hands without putting them in wild steelhead spawning streams.

Excess Rogue hatchery summer steelhead captured at Cole Rivers Hatchery will be released into Emigrant Lake beginning this week. Up until now, the excess fish have been recycled into the upper Rogue as the so-called retread steelhead, but that process halts each Jan. — to ensure that the recycled fish do not stray and spawn with wild fish.

The first 420 of those excess steelhead are now in the lake, where they were stocked Tuesday at the Emigrant Lake County Park boat ramp, says David Pease, the hatchery's production coordinator.

Another 500 excess fish were released there Wednesday.

— After those fish adjust to their new environs, they primarily move into Emigrant Creek, which is the only Emigrant Lake tributary open to year-round angling.

Anglers, many of them fly-fishermen, can catch these steelhead in the creek, which gives Ashland anglers like Ken Morrish a steelheading opportunity close to home.

The lower section of Emigrant Creek can be awash in fish and fishermen once word gets out, Morrish says.

My 4-year-old (son) enjoys Emigrant Creek, Morrish says. There can be fish all over the place. It can be kind of a circus, but it's a hilarious scene.

Others fish for the steelhead in the lake, either by trolling spinners or casting bait or flies where the steelhead congregate.

The steelhead, however, are legally considered trout once they are released in Emigrant Lake and thus fall under regular trout catch limits. The limit is five a day over 8 inches long, but only one of them can be over 20 inches.

These fish are in fairly good shape, Pease says. Basically, people will be keeping just one, unless they can find some of the few under 20 (inches).

Emigrant Lake is a watery repository for some of Cole Rivers' excess fish.

The hatchery's extra chinook salmon are often sold to a seafood processor, and extra hatchery coho are either given to feed Oregon's hungry or used for stream-enrichment programs.

But steelhead, as a game fish, cannot be sold. So extra fish either are killed and buried or find a new home.

The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife in the 1990s turned to Emigrant Lake as a new home for the excess Rogue summer-run and winter-run steelhead. Agency biologists chose it over Lost Creek Lake over concerns of potentially adding diseases to Lost Creek Lake water that is used to feed the hatchery's water needs.

No such problem exists at Emigrant Lake, where the new immigrants have become part of the angling landscape.

I'd hate to call it that, but it is a dumping ground, hatchery manager Randy Robart says. But it seems to work. People like to see those fish in Emigrant Lake.

Similarly, excess hatchery winter steelhead captured at the trap below Applegate Dam are released into the lake.

Catches of the recycled steelhead historically have been poor in the lake. However, the Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission four years ago opened the creek to year-round angling, prompting the opportunity for fishing in the lower creek area. Most of the creek runs on private property, but access is open in a day-use area where the creek flows into the lake.

Other fish head for other tributaries that remain closed to angling.

Those steelhead that swim past anglers head upstream to spawn ' just like their wild brethren.

I don't know if we're getting a whole lot of production or whether those fingerling turn into food for bass, ODFW biologist Jerry Vogt says. But they are trying to spawn in those tributaries.

Reach reporter Mark Freeman at 776-4470, or e-mail