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'Stripped,' released steelhead real on Rogue

I have a question about the Friday fishing report. There was mention of Rogue River steelhead in the system now, and mention of some 8-pound fish. Some of those, it explained, were females that have been stripped of their eggs at the hatchery and returned to the river. Can you confirm that the hatchery has a program for stripping their eggs without sacrificing the fish?

— Dan, Talent

We at Since You Asked Central also keep a close eye on the Fishing Report published in Friday's Oregon Outdoors section and wondered ourselves whether that stripped-steelhead line was real or some kind of fish tale.

Turns out, it's true and even more interesting, to boot.

For decades, techs at Cole Rivers Fish Hatchery spawned male and female summer steelhead they collected, killing the fish they used. Excess fish early in the run were recycled back downstream and released into the Rogue River as so-called "retread steelhead," while late-run excess and spawned fish were frozen and used for stream enrichment and pathology tests.

About 10 years ago, however, hatchery technicians decided to take advantage of the steelhead's life-cycle trait that allows some of them to survive spawning and return to the ocean to grow another year before returning as bigger spawning adults.

Techs started releasing the males and females they used for spawning so the fish could head back downstream. Biologists knew they couldn't stray onto wild steelhead spawning grounds because they were done spawning, hatchery Manager Dave Pease says.

They also took excess females and, instead of killing them, stripped them of their eggs and released them, Pease says. Techs hold the fish vertically, gently squeeze the belly and pull downward, stripping the loose eggs right out of them, he says.

Last year, 645 such fish were released, and 507 the year before, he says. Each one had a hole punched in its left gill plate to show they were from this group, Pease says.

While that hole punch usually grows over, every now and then hatchery technicians collect a large hatchery steelhead with the faint outline of a hole punch in that plate, Pease says.

Pease says he has "no idea" what percentage survive to come back as bigger steelhead the following year.

So, what's the big deal?

Anglers can only keep hatchery fish during the summer steelhead run, so getting some bigger fish to take home is a boon to them — for both their fish stories and their barbecues.

Send questions to “Since You Asked,” Mail Tribune Newsroom, P.O. Box 1108, Medford, OR 97501; by fax to 541-776-4376; or by email to youasked@mailtribune.com. We’re sorry, but the volume of questions received prevents us from answering all of them.