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Taking stock of trout

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TRAIL — Tom Stinson makes plenty of new friends every time he backs down a Southern Oregon boat ramp like the one at Fish Lake.

It’s like an ice cream truck pulling up to a schoolyard at recess, and all the ice cream is free.

“You show up with a truck full of fish and everybody loves you,” Stinson says.

Stinson and other fish deliverers from Cole Rivers Hatchery and other facilities around Oregon are everybody’s buddies this week as anglers flock to various lakes such as Fish Lake for what used to be the traditional start of the spring trout-fishing season.

Though the fourth Saturday of April has lost a lot of its luster since 2016 when the Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission pulled the drain on the traditional trout opener and made virtually all lakes and ponds open year-round, one thing remains the same.

These Southern Oregon lakes and the anglers who fish them rely almost solely on hatchery stockings to create these popular fisheries, because most of the region’s waterways are reservoirs with very little, if any, natural trout production.

Whether they’re stocked as 3-inch fingerling, 8-inch legal-sized or 1-pound “trophy trout,” they are all hatchery fish.

So it pays to know what you’re catching and taking home.

Saying fish come from Fish Lake is like saying steaks come from the grocery store.

The truth is, a lot of gyrations occur at facilities such as Cole Rivers to put the put in the put-and-take trout fisheries, often a 16-month cycle before a legal-sized hatchery rainbow gets hooked, netted, grilled and eaten.

The 5,000 8-inch, legal-sized rainbow trout stocked April 18 in Fish Lake began life in January 2018, when 600,000 fertilized trout eggs arrived at Cole Rivers on the upper Rogue River from ODFW’s Roaring River Hatchery near Scio.

By February they had hatched and grown large enough to be placed in the facility’s concrete raceways, where they heartily feed on food pellets made, ironically, from fish meal.

Only about 5 percent of the initial eggs didn’t make it to this stage, hatchery Manager Dave Pease says. During their time in the ponds, another 5,000 rainbows are lost either to fungus or predators such as herons and kingfishers that are able to eschew the pond netting that keeps out what once were Cole Rivers’ most common burglars — ospreys.

Calibrated feeders set on timers toss pellets into the ponds.

“Rainbow are pretty easy to raise,” Pease says. “They are one of the easier fish to raise. They want to eat all the time.”

The biggest concerns are disease and fungus outbreaks, which lead to chemical or salt treatments, he says.

For the next year, the trout pack on the ounces and they are graded and sorted into ponds based on size.

By this spring, an estimated 302,585 rainbows made it to the 8- to 10-inch stage, which is the minimum legal size for anglers to keep.

Legals weigh, on average, 1/3 of a pound, so the fish are counted via basic mathematics based on tank weight before and after stocking.

Then comes “liberation day,” when the rainbows literally get the ride of their lives.

Just getting into the liberation truck likely is a surreal rainbow experience.

Hatchery technicians climb into one end of the pond with a messed “crowder” to push all the rainbows toward where a hose connected to a special siphon pump sucks the fish and the water out of the pond and above the stocking truck, where a screen causes the water to flow back and the trout dribble through a chute and into the truck’s watery hold.

The trout slosh around in the tank, whose poor seals mean a little splashing at stop signs and tight curves along Crowfoot Road en route to Fish Lake about an hour away.

At the lake, Stinson affixes a metal tube to the tank’s outer portal, backs down to the waterway and pulls the lever, sending the tank and all its contents tumbling into the recently melted lake.

“It’s got to be confusing for them,” Stinson says.

This day, there are no happy anglers nearby, so the fish fin around in groups or alone in search of their bearings. It’s the first time they’ve been in water that cold and without a concrete base and with food pellets flying overhead at precise intervals.

But they haven’t eaten in a few days, so they’re hungry.

Anglers lucky enough to make stocking day can usually begin hitting their limits of rainbows faster than Stinson can chuck trout their way.

“I’ve seen people hook up on the fish as soon as the fish hit the water, even before we’re done dumping the load,” Stinson says.

What’s left of those 5,000 rainbows will be in Fish Lake Saturday for the former traditional opening day.

But there you won’t find Stinson, who’s not much of a trout bum on his off hours anymore.

“I used to be a really avid trout fisherman,” Stinson says. “But now that I handle these from eggs to release, it’s not really exciting. It’s more like catching your kids than catching a trophy fish.”

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470 or mfreeman@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MTwriterFreeman.

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A rainbow trout after release into Fish Lake. Jamie Lusch / Mail Tribune