Coastal Oregon Steelhead – Winter and Summer Run Populations

The summer steelhead pictured here, just prior to its release, is a hatchery fish that was stocked and  caught on the Middle Fork of the Willamette.

The Middle Fork hatchery steelhead program is remarkable from the standpoint that it supports a robust recreational fishery during the spring, summer, and autumn, within minutes of zillions of people who live in the Eugene & Springfield area.

Winter steelhead are not native to the Middle fork, and the naive run of wild spring chinook has been all but erased by the salmon problems associated with Dexter Dam, Lookout Point Dam, and Hills Creek Dam.

This is a preamble to a question: do you ever wonder how many populations of summer and winter steelhead the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife categorizes on the Oregon Coast?  The majority of anglers I have met spend most of their time trying to figure out how to catch a steelhead, or how to catch more steelhead, than pondering population classifications and steelhead management policy.

Just to keep the science of steelhead management on the table for anyone who cares to discuss such matters, I assembled the following table that summarizes, as closely as I could, ODFW’s list of native, coastal steelhead populations.

Among the key  concepts that this table displays, is that there are two Species Management Units on the Oregon coast,Coastal and Rogue SMUs;  but only three native summer steelhead populations, compared to roughly 31 winter steelhead populations.

One could ask whether or not classification of these population units could be informed by more or newer data, but it is clear that native populations of summer steelhead are rare in Oregon coastal rivers, even more rare than the populations of spring-run Chinook classified by ODFW.

FYI, this information was compiled from the ODFW Native Fish Status Report.

Hope you find this interesting.


Perspectives on Salmon Hatcheries . . .

Salmon hatcheries have been with us for well over a century here in the Pacific Northwest.  Few of the anglers, and conservation minded people I know, even the most ardent wild fish advocates study the history of salmon hatcheries.

The Oregon fly fishing blog just posted the first part of an article I wrote summarizing he historical expectations of salmon hatcheries in our region.  I invite anyone who cares about the future of Pacific salmon and fishing to check it out.

I did my best to be accurate and fair. Guess what?    As much as I know, I am sure I have much to discover and new ways of understanding.  The only way to do this is to engage in constructive dialogue.

Agree with what you read?  Say so.

Surprised?  Say so.

Disagree?  Again, say so.

Thanks – JN

Do Hatchery Fish Spawn in the Wild?

Here we go again.  Blogosphere Google searches seeking information.

Q:  Do hatchery fish spawn in wild

A: Why yes they do.


Not always.

Sometimes hatchery fish simply die before they mature sexually and are therefore unable to spawn in the wild.  Sometimes this death occurs as a consequence of actually being caught and “retained” by an angler, as intended. So that pretty much negates any possibility of spawning in the wild.

Sometimes the hatchery fish do not get caught, don’t die, and do in fact spawn, either with other hatchery fish or with wild fish.

Sometimes the offspring of the hatchery fish survive and themselves reach maturity and spawn.

Sometimes the offspring of hatchery fish live for a portion of their life cycle and then die before spawning.  Studies of the effectiveness of hatchery fish spawning in the wild, compared to wild native fish spawning – a mouthful – usually show that the hatchery fish are not as productive (i.e., they express lower fitness) than the wild fish spawning in the same stream.

There are some examples where hatchery salmon or steelhead that escaped from net-pens have established “wild” naturally produced runs, but these are, to the best of my knowledge, principally in places where the salmon are exotic (not native) and in these places, and the exotic salmon have decimated any native fishes that were present in the streams.

Bedazzled and confused by my oversimplifications?  You should be.  The matter is complicated.

Beware of simple, one-size-fits-all answers.


Ten Hippie Nonsense Commandments of Wild Fish Advocacy

Ten Hippie Nonsense Commandments of Wild Fish Advocacy

An anonymous person who goes by “Big Mike”” did not like what I wrote recently in my Respect our Hatchery Steelhead post.  Big Mike seemed to take offense to what I wrote and expressed the opinion that I was talking “hippie nonsense.”

Right on, dude.

Sustaining healthy wild fish populations requires a trifecta of actions: protecting habitat (from the headwaters to the ocean); allowing enough fish to spawn; and keeping he effects of hatchery fish within levels where the wild fish can still flourish.

Feeling rather free this morning, I decided to share.  How nice.  You’re welcome.

Ten Hippie Nonsense Commandments of Wild Fish Advocacy

1.     No name-calling.  Period.  Harsh thoughts about other people should be kept to oneself.   The land developers, dam builders, oil drillers, industrial foresters, and golf course developers are taking notes.

2.     Keep science separate from personal preferences and be clear about both.

3.     Recognize that habitat destruction – the disembodiment of watershed ecological processes – is a far more pervasive and relentless threat to wild fish than most of the hatchery fish programs currently in Oregon.

4.     Understand that fish harvest, potentially, could inflict rapid and devastating impact on the productivity of wild fish populations.

5.     Partner with a diverse set of anglers and conservation advocacy groups; find areas of common ground.

6.     Don’t make a crisis out of every fish management issue.

7.     Set long-term goals.

8.     Chart timetables for achieving these goals. Propose bridge management alternatives. Don’t try to eat the elephant at one sitting.

9.     Accept more risk to wild fish in some areas in order to achieve less risk to wild fish in other areas.

10.  Help educate the general angling public and the non-angling public.  If the community of anglers is unable to find areas of agreement regarding wild fish management, why should the general pubic care about salmon and steelhead?

We need to work together, not battle among ourselves.  We are bait fishers and fly fishers; we want to kill fish and we don’t; we are pro- and anti-hatchery fish advocates; we are tribal and non-tribal fishers.

If we anglers behave the way we have in the past, I fear we will all lose.  Wild fish will lose.  Hatchery fish will lose.  The future of fishing will lose.  Rivers and public access to rivers will lose.  If we, members of various fishing preference groups are too strident, exclusive, and personally combative, others who value the salmon’s precious rivers for water, timber harvest, luxury homes, golf courses, or power may have more to say about the future of these rivers, wild fish, and fishing than anglers will.


Respect our Hatchery Steelhead

Show hatchery fish a little respect, please.

Yeah.  You heard it right.  Heard it from a wild fish nut.

I watched a short video recently, one of those delightful You-tube things, this one showing a fellow catching a summer steelhead on a fly.  Nice guy.  Nice river.  Nice fish.

Here is the part that troubled me.

I watched him make the cast, intently following his fly.  He wanted to catch a summer steelhead.  He worked at it diligently.  He cast and cast.  My guess is that this fellow really knows his water, is a skilled fly fisher, probably is a fly tyer too, and catches a whole lot more fish than I do.

Pretty soon, sure enough, he hooked a steelhead.  He was excited, genuinely thrilled.  The battle ensued, the fish went gadzooks, and jumped and ran and the reel screeched, and water sprayed up from his line, and there were droplets hanging in the air, and all that stuff that sends adrenaline flushing through our veins and keeps us addicted and spending our entire life savings on fishing tackle.

Eventually, this gentleman brought the steelhead close, slid it ashore, and grabbed it.  He waded ashore, all full of big smiles, and began a series of remarks about the steelhead being a hatchery fish and that is why he is killing it, and how harvesting the fish is good for the wild fish, and all the stuff we have been taught by the fish management agencies and the latest science, and the people we fish with, and the people we read about, and all that jazz.

I do not mean to single this gentleman out, because I absolutely know that the views he expresses are mainstream.  I have heard people I respect greatly, my good friends, make similar remarks about “ridding the gene pool of inferior hatchery fish,  weeding out the hatchery drones, bonking the cookie cutters, knocking the pellet heads, the snakes, the ….”


People, please cease and desist indulging in this sort of talk. The language we use and the way we describe the world around us defines who we are.  The language we use provides a template for others to copy and repeat.  The language we use sets the tone in our brain and affects the way we perceive everything, from the rivers to our fellow anglers.

I know plenty of people who love to fly fish for steelhead, and a few who are obsessed with fly fishing for Chinook salmon.  I have fished with these folks.  I have seen the excitement on their faces, their body vibes, when they hook a fish.  They are just plain addicted to the hook-up, the tug, the head-shake, and the fight.  They want to feel the connection with a big fish, and when it comes, it is unconditional.  They do not know, at this point, if the fish is wild or hatchery, they just feel the hormonal release of joy juice in their whole being, the climactic euphoria of making contact with an elusive living creature far off at the end of their line.

Why is it, then, if it becomes apparent that they are connected to a hatchery fish, their attitude, their demeanor shifts from one of respect to one of – almost – disdain?

This shift in attitude is, in my opinion, bad juju.

My young son is taking Ki Aikido training. The sensei was training young students and demonstrating the effects of negative or disrespectful thinking.  Without going into details, let me simply say that even thinking bad thoughts about someone or something else drains our strength, it weakens us, and it magnifies negative energy around us.

This might sound silly. It is not – and the concept is not trivial.

If we love fish, if we love rivers and fishing and wild creatures, then our passion for wild and healthy ecosystems will be best served by sending positive, respectful Ki to our surroundings – including hatchery fish and fellow anglers who might fish differently than we do and who might not even recognize or care a hoot about the origin of a fish, be it wild or hatchery.

I am disappointed when I see a hatchery fish that has stubbed off fins.  It makes me sad when I see a hatchery fish that is skinny, has a rounded off nose or that madly disorganized pattern of regenerated scales associated with handling in hatchery ponds.  I do not let my disappointment for the condition or origin of that hatchery fish cross the boundary into disrespect for a living creature.

When I catch a hatchery steelhead, no matter how it looks, I say, “thank you, for the opportunity to catch this fish.”  If I kill it to take home for my family or a friend’s family to eat, I say, “thank you for sharing your life energy to sustain our bodies and spirit.”

I have heard biologists tell us that we need to kill as many of these hatchery fish as we can, in order to “weed them out of the gene pool.”

That just doesn’t sit right with me.

The consequence of falling into this trap changes the entire frame of reference to one where I am now fishing, not for the fun of it, but to  protect wild fish from the nasty effects of hatchery fish.  Do you see the subtle difference?  If these hatchery fish are so damaging then why are so many being put out into the rivers anyway?

I know the science. I know that hatchery fish are not good for wild fish.  So what?  Don’t expect me to clean up after someone else’s mess.  If I choose to not kill a hatchery fish, I have the right to release it, I have the right to respect it, and enjoy the tug, and the battle, and the hunt, and the release.  I can go home feeling good that I caught a fish that day.  I can do all this and focus on positive energy, positive thinking, and feelings of goodwill and joy, because I know, in my heart, that such uplifting thoughts create more good energy.

The dark-side path that is being modeled by a dismaying number of good people, sends us all into the vortex of mean-spiritedness.  Speaking of hatchery fish in disrespectful terms or handling them in a disrespectful manner simply hastens the demise of everything we care deeply about.  Every fish we catch, wild or hatchery, should be spoken of, conversed with, and handled with the same respect we would a wild fish.  This honors us.  This honors the living universe.

Personally, I wish for more wild fish, healthier rivers, and a societal shift that will respect nature more.  Listen to BP’s before and after promises that an ecologically damaging oil spill was unlikely, even impossible to occur.  Now think about the real possibility that we could lose wild salmon and steelhead.  Think these two situations are not connected?

Wrong.  Meantime, speak of all rivers and all fish with respect, if with pragmatic respect.

Challenge me on this one if you wish.  I simply believe that if we love wild salmon we must speak and act with sincere respect and kindness towards hatchery fish.

No bull.

We can accurately recognize that a hatchery salmon is not the same creature as a wild salmon.  We can strive to protect our rivers from development that will strangle their ability to nurture wild salmon.  We can challenge harvest managers to reduce exploitation rates and increase escapements of wild fish.  We can financially support upgrades to hatcheries so they can be managed in ways that are less damaging to wild fish.

We should consider the number hatchery fish may appropriately  be released into our rivers.  We should be talking about reserving some of our best rivers for wild fish, an insurance policy to protect these most productive wild runs from the downsides of hatchery programs and hatchery fish.  We shold be talking about ensuring that spawning escapements for wild fish are being met.

There is much work that must be accomplished in order to ensure that our remaining rivers and wild salmon are not squandered by a continuing sequence of societal choices consistent with human-kind’s environmentally destructive history.

I intend to do what I can to support attitudes that are respectful towards wild rivers, wild and hatchery fish, because I believe that the future of wild fish will be more secure in a world where all creatures, wild and hatchery, are respected.


Wild Fish, Bad Fish?

Warning:  ethical conundrum follows.

We love native Pacific salmon, yes?  We love wild salmon and steelhead, yes?  Sure we do.  And we love to catch hatchery fish too.  At least I do.  I would rather, given a choice, hook a wild salmon or steelhead than a hatchery fish.  Not because I can tell right from the start that the fish is a hatchery fish.  Not because I dislike hatchery fish.  I think that it just makes me happy knowing that a river is capable of supporting an honest-to-gosh wild salmon or steelhead throughout its live cycle, that there is still a hope for wild rivers and wild salmon in the future.

And I have the same sense of excitement when I feel the tug, the pull, the grab, the drive-by, yank, tickle or bump, not really knowing if the fish is hatchery or wild until, if I bring the fish close, I can see whether or not the adipose fin is there – or not.

I do feel a great sense of disappointment looking at most of the hatchery steelhead I have caught over the years.  Stubbed-off dorsal fins.  Rounded nose and tail.  The disarray of regenerated scales that signifies early life in a hatchery pond.  To me, these hatchery steelhead do not look healthy.

Not all hatchery steelhead look like the beat-up retired professional boxer, though.  I have caught a few hatchery steelhead that were sleek, muscular, radiant fish, but for a missing fin or maxillary bone.  These fish tell me that it is possible, under the right conditions, to raise hatchery steelhead that are fine-looking fish.

And the same goes for Chinook and coho salmon, except that “nice looking” hatchery salmon seem to be more the norm that the exception.  Hatchery Chinook, in my experience, look a lot like their wild counterparts, and it is often only a close inspection of pectoral fins ventral fins, and dorsal fins that give a hint that the fish was raised in a hatchery, if the fish was not marked by removing an adipose fin.  Fish like these, salmon that look a lot like wild fish, can often be identified through the science and art of scale reading.

Point is, I love wild fish and I love hatchery fish and I love to catch fish, and I am disappointed when a river can not support a decent fun of wild fish and I am really disappointed when I look at a hatchery fish that looks – physically – like it has been run through the veg-o-matic.

Notice that there were a lot of “ands” stringing that overly long sentence together, and not a single “but.”

Too much rambling here.  Expect me to advocate serious efforts to change hatchery practices and do whatever needs to be done to produce hatchery steelhead that are darn near as good-looking as wild steelhead.  I’ll save that for a different post.

I caught a beautiful wild winter steelhead hen recently.  A fish I had been working diligently to catch for quite some time.  On the Swing.  On a sparse Tube Intruder that I “poached” from a fly tied by a friend.  On my Burkheimer 7134.  On a perfect cast.  On a river-day with a good friend who shared my joy.

This hen was big, larger than most I have caught on a fly.  This fish was sweet in may ways.  A reward for so very much practice and preparation, and dreaming, and persistent stubbornness and  – well, any of you who swing flies for winter steelhead know the story.

Funny thing, though, is that this wonderful wild steelhead was an anomaly.  A fish out of context.  An interloper.  A party crasher.  I was fishing for hatchery summer steelhead in a river where wild winter steelhead are not native.  Yeah.  Problem is, I guess that no one was acting as room monitor to make sure that wild steelhead didn’t sneak into the party when they weren’t on the invitation list.

This happens with Pacific salmon.  Conditions have to be right, environments must be hospitable.  If a wild run of salmon or steelhead was not present in a river historically, then a wild run can only be established if some historical limiting factor or barrier is removed.

Coho above Willamette Falls are an example of a case where salmon have established a run of wild fish in rivers where they were not native.  Two points to mention here.  First, to be politically correct, I should be using the phrase “naturally produced” instead of “wild.”  Sorry, too little of my life remains to worry about being politically correct all the dang time.  Second, it is important to understand, or a least accept that wild coho salmon were not “native” to the Willamette above the falls at Oregon City, because passage conditions were only suitable during late spring.

ODFW stocked coho smolts above Willamette Falls for many years, then discontinued to practice as part of an increased emphasis on wild, native spring Chinook and winter steelhead.  Funny thing though, a run of wild (naturally produced) coho seems to have established itself in several tributaries above the Falls.  These fish are a bit of an enigma and could be viewed as a problem, because, most likely, these “wild interlopers” will compete with less-than-healthy native species in some of the same tributaries where the coho have established their new wild runs.

What to do? Possibly, little can be done.  Small runs of wild, non-native fall Chinook have also established themselves above Willamette Falls.  Short of closing he fish ladder during the fall months, these pioneers are probably here to stay.  The historical barrier to passage has been breached, so to speak, and the horses are out of the barn.  Or the chickens are in the kitchen.  Whatever.  There is debate over whether wild summer steelhead in Salmon River, tributary to the Sandy River, are remnants of a native run or if they are simply a non-native gang of party crashers.

ODFW treats both of these runs of wild fish as non-native, and allows anglers to harvest the fish, thereby affording preferential treatment to native wild species, if largely in concept.

The beautiful wild winter steelhead hen I caught was the same sort of fish:  considered non-native by ODFW, this fish could have been harvested legally, a symbolic nod to wild, native spring Chinook that are, in my opinion, virtually extinct in the area where I caught this fish.  Note, if you will, that this fish is (my presumption entirely, without any proof whatsoever) descended from native Willamette winter steelhead.

I happily, reverently released this wild fish, as I might well have happily, reverently released a hatchery summer steelhead if I had caught one.  I am a quirky critter, no doubt.

I didn’t  realize that this fish could have been stuffed into our fish box, until another angler pointed out that local regulations permitted harvest of non-fin-marked trout over 24.”  Seems that ODFW, in recognition of competitive interactions between native and non-native anadromous fish, chose to encourage (or at least allow) harvest of the non-natives.

Without second guessing or passing judgment on the wisdom of the policy, I began to think about the implications.  Salmonids are pioneer species.  Remove a historical barrier to a species or run of salmon or steelhead, and they are likely to establish a run if given a chance.  Given a chance requires sufficient habitat quality, ability to adapt genetically and behaviorally to the new environment, and management regimes that don’t kill ’em off before they can get established.

Knowing what  salmon will do, if given a chance, it is probably worth undertaking a look, case by case, run by run, river by river, and occasionally re-thinking management options.  Would it be desirable to close the Willamette Falls fish ladder in the fall?  Would it be desirable (or even OK) to give summer steelhead in the Salmon River protection from harvest, and see how this run of wild fish fares, rather than haranguing constantly over whether the run is native or not?  And what about the run of wild winter steelhead in the Middle Fork of the Willamette?  What if it turns out that these fish can fare better than the native spring Chinook, currently listed under federal ESA?

What should the policy options be if it turns out that the non-native run of wild winter steelhead is now more ecologically in tune with the highly altered ecosystem in the Middle Fork than the Native spring Chinook?

I do not propose answers to these questions.  They are matters that merit some “outside-the-box” thinking and discussion, I think.

Meanwhile, I am still aglow with the memories of this beautiful henfish.  A fish of several thousand casts.


Post Script: I clearly had salmon and steelhead on the brain when I wrote this.  Striped Bass?  Walleye?  Musky?  Carp?  Egads, things get complicated.  No comment.

Greetings from the Hatchery God

The God of Hatcheries Speaks………

Good Morning. I am the God of hatcheries in the State of Today.  Just Today mind you.  Not Oregon, Washington, Idaho, California, Canada, or Alaska.  You get the idea.  Limited geographic jurisdiction.

The question on the table, posed by a blogospheric busy-body, goes something like this:  what changes would I make to the hatchery system here, in the great State of Today?

Interesting.  Someone must think that changes are in order, otherwise, the enquirer could have simply said, “nice job, way to go, keep on keepin’ on, bravo, encore,” or such forth.

Humm. What changes would I make?

Perhaps I might suggest starting with a discussion of our heavenly organizational chart.  This is the arrangement of employees, temporary workers, contractors, managers, ad-hoc teams, think-tankers, lobbyists, consultants, board members, commissioners, advisory councils, oversight bodies, accountants, special investigators, research section scientists, and so on.

As God of Hatcheries, I report to the God of Fish Management.  The God of Fish Management supervises many Gods, via a series of management Gods.  Some of these gods are responsible for commercial fish harvest, recreational fish harvest, studies of native fish throughout the State of Today, public relations, license sales, data analysis, fish and habitat monitoring, paperwork, budget cuts, engineering, administrative rules, facilities maintenance, fish screens, finance analysis, property management, real estate, endangered species coordination, conservation science, planning coordination, conservation of native species, fish health, stock identification, water quality, information management, dams, ocean salmon, Big River programs, technical resources, fisheries management programs coordination, marine resources, shellfish, shrimp, crabs,  trout, community support, ground fish, field biologists, samplers, union stewards, marine mammals, and, pardon the pun, God knows who else.

The God of Fish and the God of Wildlife both report to the God of the Fish and Wildlife Management, who in turn reports to a Commission of Gods that oversees the God of Fish and Wildlife.

Our Fish and Wildlife God is but one of many among the Gods in the State of Today, including great Gods of health and human services, transportation, prisons, environment, forestry, water resources, mining, state lands, economic development, investments, taxation, judicial, administrative services, law enforcement – to name a few.

The heavenly organizational chart is complicated, as you can see. Hope it doesn’t sound like I’m passing the buck.

What you might not have gathered from all this blathering is that I don’t really exist.

There concept of a solitary, independent God of Hatcheries in the State of Today is an illusion.

The God of Hatcheries is much like the Internet. It is not a single person, an all-powerful entity, a computer, or even a single idea.

The God of hatcheries is an intricately associated network – dispersed across space and time – that includes ideas, beliefs, historical precedent, hopes for the future, business arrangements, mutual economic and presumed dependencies, legal contracts, friendships, brochures on the safe use of disinfectants, leaky chest waders and worn-out boots, job descriptions, performance evaluations, union negotiations, cases of toilet paper, supporters, detractors, onlookers, anglers, guides, tackle manufacturers, school teachers, tourists, scientists, bureaucrats, pontificators, authors, bloggers, know-it-alls, concrete, tradition, water rights, sacks of fish food, stores of antibiotics, research proposals awaiting funding, research in progress, musty old boxes of rubber bands stored in corners, symposia and reports on the impacts of hatcheries on wild fish, economic cost/benefit analyses, truck-loads of coded-wire-tags, weekly fishing reports, the owner of the Jasper Store deciding how many corkies and ghost shrimp to order, people who make fish tagging machines, lawns to mow, parking lots to grade, interpretative kiosks that need to be painted, toilets that have to be cleaned, people who wave magic wands over fish heads on the docks at Scappoose, nets to repair, Indian tribes that are legally entitled to salmon, federal government promises to replace salmon runs that were destroyed by dams, international and interstate treaties, yellow highlighters and number 2 pencils, six-year-old kids, life jackets and safety equipment, articles in Salmon Trout Steelheader, conversations in boats, fifty people standing elbow-to-elbow below the South Santiam  hatchery ladder in June, front page headlines in the Todayonian, weekly columns by Mill Bonroe, astute scientists and historians, crazy ideas, federal tax dollars, 86-year old kids, fishing license revenue, hysteria, clear thinking, contentment with the way things were last year, hopes for changing the ways will go next year,   – – – – – – –

Get it?

There is no such thing as one-stop-shopping if one is hoping to change the hatchery system in the State of Today.  Everything is connected.  Good intentions will have far-reaching consequences.  Maintaining the hatchery system as it is will have consequences.  Changing the hatchery system in some way, in any way, will have consequences.

Steady as she-goes?

Right full rudder?

We might want to think carefully before giving the order, eh?

(Respectfully transmitted by JN)

Salmon Questions from the Blogosphere

Salmon Questions from the Blogosphere.

Here you go Chris. I have, as requested, tried to answer your questions.  Again, I ask anyone who reads this to think more about your own story, because our collective memories and stories shape the perceptions and attitudes we bring to the negotiating table when we haggle over the future of wild fish, hatchery fish, rivers, and fishing here in this beautiful lower-48 corner of the Pacific Northwest.


Q:  Describe your introduction to fishing.

My first introduction to fishing was in the early 1950s when my Father took me along on a fishing trip to a small creek near Augusta Georgia.  I didn’t fish.  I think my Father did, but can’t remember how he fished.  We were near a bridge.  I remember seeing a fish dart across the creek.  That’s all.  I was hooked.  Captivated.  Enthralled

My first actual fishing occurred when my Father was stationed in Istanbul, Turkey, in about 1954 or thereabouts.  He hired a Turkish man with a rowboat to take us fishing in the Bosporus. The Turk provided hand-line, sinker of some sort, and tied some small, feathered jig-hooks on the line.

I remember lowering my hand-line into the depths and jigging it up and down.  Soon enough, I had a bite.  I pulled in my line and retrieved a small fish, maybe six-inches long.  I think the fish was a pale orangish-pinkish and had large translucent fins.  It was so long ago.  I was fascinated with this creature.  I held it in my hands in the water to watch it.  Being a fish, it soon squirted out of my hands and returned to the deep.

So much for catch and release fishing.  I remember feeling wronged by the little fish that had not chosen to stay in my hands. The next fish I caught went promptly into the security of the bottom of the boat, as did the next dozen or so fish, all of about the same size.

I have come to believe, after raising one son and still working on raising a second, that fishing is something that people are born-to – or not.  This may be a case of “gene expression” as in – the genetic tendency to go nuts for fishing either turns on or it doesn’t.

My fishing friends with children have experienced the same.  Some kids just love to fish, right from the git-go.  Some can take-it or leave-it.  Children born to families with avid-angler fathers do not necessarily want to fish at all.

My first experience fishing in Oregon was in the early 1960s.  I bought a spool of leader and a few hooks at the Neskowin Store, cut a springy limb about four feet long, tied the line to the pole, and used some bacon for bait.  I caught little trout.  Probably they were little cutthroat and juvenile steelhead.  I didn’t know.  Most of the fish went home with me.

Q:  How has fishing in Oregon changed in terms of ……

Q:  Tactics?

More sophisticated. I was given a Shakespeare Spinning rod, a Mitchell 300 reel, some Okie Drifters, Super Duper lures, Mepps spinners, and some Woblrite spoons.  I carried a gaff that I made in 8th Grade Shop Class.  No hip boots, fishing vest, rain-gear, nippers, zingers, hook hones, or fancy this and that.  Virtually none of the do-dads that many anglers consider essential these days.

Q:  Marketing?

Product marketing is a fact of American life.  Marketing of the sport, of fishing as recreation is pretty weak compared to marketing fast cars or beer or even adrenaline-charged young-punk thrill sports.  It didn’t seem important to “market” fishing as recreation when I was a kid.  We just did it, a lot of us, because our dads fished.  Today, fewer and fewer kids grow up wanting to fish.  They play video games, or soccer, or watch movies or TV or hang-out in the Malls.  Who is still around to take kids fishing these days?

Sure there is a generation of young-guns who are super hottie anglers even given their twenty-something ages.  But there aren’t nearly enough of these lazer aweome invisionary pisticators.  Our sport is dying, the Fish Agencies tell us.  Suffering the death of urbanization and disconnection from nature.  I think the sport is being killed by loss of public access also.  I think the sport is dying because a lot of the wild runs have been beat down for one reason or another.  All the hope we had for hatcheries has not borne nearly the sweet fruit we had hoped for.

Q:  Hatchery influence?

I think that hatchery salmon and steelhead are currently being stocked in fewer Oregon coastal rivers, in generally smaller number, than was the case in the 1960s, ‘70s, and even the ‘80s.  I think those were the days of producing tons of domesticated-stock hatchery fish and scatter-planting them around in lots of rivers.

Catchable trout were stocked in a lot of coastal and inland rivers and creeks.  I remember fishing Dairy Creek near Portland when I was in high school.  I would cut class and go fishing.  I never asked a farmer’s permission; just made my way across a fiend, stepped into the creek, and fly fished my way upstream.  I caught two- or three-dozen cutthroat every time (during early season) I fished there.  How big?  Probably from 5” to 10” – an occasional 12-13” fish was a prize.  I remember catching a 13” cutthroat that had a red fly with a foot of leader tippet still stuck in its jaw.  I know that Dairy Creek was stocked with hatchery rainbow for the season opener, but I do not believe that I ever, ever caught one.  I did catch a lot of hatchery trout in the Metolius and Nestucca rivers, in the Collowash, in Fish Creek, In the Luckiamute, and in Pine Creek.

It seemed easy to find access to fishing for trout in small streams back then.  Just drive out of the city, park along a river, and go fishin’.  Not like that today.  From the Elk, the Sixes, Neskowin, Alsea, Salmon River, Dairy Creek, Siletz and more – one can drive and drive, seeing “NO TRESPASSING” signs, trophy homes, trailer parks, or supermarkets in places where we once walked across a field to fish.

Q:  Conservation?

I wasn’t part of the conservation conversation in those days.  I think that people took fish and fishing pretty much for granted, and expecting hatchery trout, salmon, and steelhead to always be there for us was likely part of that complacency.

Q:  ODFW attitudes?

My only way to guage ODFW’s attitudes about fishing and conservation in the 1960s and 70s is by reading the reports generated during those decades.  My sense is that fish were considered fish, hatchery fish were seen as the salvation of fishing, and that the angler’s world was a good place, thanks to the scientific advances in hatchery fish feed, disease treatments, and selective breeding.

Q:  Fisherman’s attitudes?

Dunno.  I didn’t talk to other anglers much then.  For several decades, I was almost exclusively inward-focused.

Q:  Fishing in Oregon?

I see the world of fishing through a different lens than I did nearly fifty – or even twenty years ago.  I’m different. Combine divorce, counseling, confronting one’s demons, a new relationship, and a chance to live life differently – and you get a different perspective on life.

The world is different too.  Endangered Species act?  Didn’t exist back then.  Salmon threatened with extinction?  Preposterous.  Problems with hatcheries?  Unlikely, and even if there were, they were all “fixable” with the proper application of elbow-grease and scientific research.

Fishing is definitely different than when I cut that branch and stuck a gob of bacon on a hook to see what Neskowin Creek would give up to me.

I’ve seen wild steelhead and spring Chinook assassinated by dams on the South Santiam.  Same deal on the Deschutes, when Pelton Dam cut-off the runs of summer steelhead, bull trout, and spring Chinook.  I saw Lost Creek Dam put a dagger in the belly of Rogue spring Chinook.  Sorry, this is a different rant, couldn’t help myself.  Just had to put it out there.  I have also seen wild trout blossom on the Lower Deschutes and in the Metolius.  I have seen wonderful runs of wild king salmon to all of our Oregon coastal rivers twice in my lifetime – in the late 1980s and early 2000s.

I went fishing for spring Chinook in the Columbia last week.  Caught one.  We’ve let our wild spring Chinook languish so long, decline so deeply, that I wouldn’t have been able to fish at all were it not for the hatchery fish.  Truth is, I was really happy to go fishing with a friend, and to know salmon were there, even though most of them were hatchery fish.

Fishing is different, just as I am, these days.

Chris, you didn’t ask if I had real fishing mentors.  The answer is – no – I was pretty much on my own.  No one to teach me about restraint.  No one teach me about enjoying the whole experience rather than focusing 100% of my energy and skill on what I could catch, kill, and take home.  Fishing was a blessing and a curse to me for many years.  The curse was being too deeply invested in the catch, the kill, the full creel, full tag, full freezer, and a sense-of-self fueled by the number and size of fish I caught. That emotional investment in the catch, the kill spoiled much of what could have been a blessing.

A mentor, a friend wiser than me, might have been able to save me from myself sooner.

Q:  How did you come to make science and conservation part of your life?

Accident? Destiny?  Dunno.  I was offered full time work as a Timber Feller in Washington.  I was recruited for a career track as a Naval Officer.  I was offered a job as head guide-outfitter by a highly respected fly fishing business.  Some guy tried to convince me to leave ODFW and make a million bucks selling AMWAY.  My life could have gone many different directions.

Dedicating myself to catching fifty shiner perch after school in San Francisco Bay was good practice for Ichthyology class at Oregon State.  Figuring out how to untangle a three-hour backlash somehow helped me get a passing grade in Organic Chemistry.  Tying flies and perfecting my egg-borax technique reflected the same patience and work-ethic required to cut a big tree, secure a Destroyer’s nuclear weapons, and write about the life history of salmon.

I like my fishing attitude now.  It is funny to think about how many fish I used to catch, and how little soul-nourishment all that catching gave me.  These days I receive soul-nourishment every day I spend on the water with fly rod in hand.  Sure I like to catch fish.  Sure I try to catch fish.  But I fiddle around trying to catch fish with gear that I know makes me less likely to catch and actual steelhead or salmon.  I go fishing when the water is too high, too low, before the run comes in and after the run is over.   I dream about how a fly will swim in the water.  I imagine the next tug.  I work to improve my casting.  I write about the silly things that go on in my head when I am fishing or in the café after a day on the water.

I try to remind people that there is much more to fishing than the catching part.  I encourage people who love fishing to quit making faces at each other over hatchery fish or their gear so that they can do a better job of working together to save our rivers and wild fish.

For most of my life, I studied fish, I wrote reports, and I made nice polite presentations.  The one time I shot-off about hatcheries being a problem, about excessive harvest rates, or allowing the destruction of the salmon’s rivers, I got put in the freezer for a year.   I learned that being scientifically or factually correct is not sufficient, alone, to influence management policy.

Last year a low run of Chinook initiated a precautionary move to close the Chinook fishery on the Nehalem River, for the first time in anyone’s memory.  What a shock.  We had all come to take wild coastal Chinook for granted.  There were questions about whether too many fish were being caught in the ocean.  There were assertions that predators were eating too many salmon.  There were debates over the data ODFW used to measure catch and escapement.  But few asked if anything was “wrong” in the Nehalem watershed or in the estuary.  The most powerful voices heard by the fish agency seemed to be demanding that ODFW provide hatchery Chinook for people to catch.

This made me sad, really sad.  The Nehalem supports a run of wild Chinook that has been on the increase, generally, since the 1950s.  These wild fish supported a thriving recreational fishery that drew anglers from Portland, around Oregon, and all over the world.

First sign of trouble, what did people ask for? Better land-use practices?  Nope.  Better monitoring?  Nope.  Predator management?  Yeah, but upon realizing that the US Government is the authority on harbor seals, cormorants and such, the issue was quickly abandoned.  (After all, why blame the critters that are just trying to find a meal when most of their prey base is scarce these days?)  Lower harvest rates in the ocean fisheries?  Yeah, that would be a good idea.  However, this seemed also beyond the local angler’s or even Oregon’s control, so those discussions trailed-off quickly.  Special regulations?  No bait?  No treble hooks?  No fishing above tidewater?  No fishing on the Nehalem river bar?

When the loud voices subsided, ODFW remembered mostly that a lot of “constituents” demanded hatchery fish in response to a declining wild salmon run.  How interesting, that hatchery fish would be the first and foremost solution demanded by those most visible anglers.  Not better watershed protections.  Not gaining a better understanding of the factors limiting the species.

I have come to believe that science will only have a little to do with how people treat the land, the water, and the fish.  I think that the average angler knows far too little about the fish they try so diligently to catch.  I think hatcheries are here to stay, and I am just fine with that.  I do think it is possible to be pro hatchery fish and pro wild fish at the same time.  I do think the future of fish and fishing depends on anglers making some sort of peace in their community, and figuring out how to most effectively shape the future.

I’m fine with some folks fighting to save every wild fish everywhere.  I am fine with some folks who might believe that wild fish are a myth and in any case we sure don’t need any of ‘em because hatcheries are the only future we can count on.

I am fine with these two polar opposites because I believe they are both dangerously wrong.  I have faith that savvy anglers in the middle, pragmatic, thoughtful, creative, passionate anglers – will get together and get it right.  Not that I know what “right” is, or that there is only one version of “right.”

A new era is dawning.  An era of opportunity.  Time to get on with shaping a future where fishing will thrive.   A future with strong wild salmon, steelhead, and trout stocks.  A future with hatchery fish that provide quality fishing for quality fish.

Q:  Can everyone get along?   Nope.  Don’t need everyone to get along in order to achieve great things for the future of wild fish and fishing.

Q:  What is the biggest misconception by the everyday angler about hatcheries?

There are two terrible mistakes anglers make regarding their beliefs about hatchery fish.  One mistake is believing that hatcheries aren’t a problem for wild fish.  The other is that hatchery fish, all by their lonesome, are always a poison pill to wild fish.

Both ideas are wrong, terribly wrong.

I feel a sense of urgency.  I know I have only a little time here to ensure that wild salmon will be a real part of my son’s lives, and of their children’s lives too.  This is about more than salmon.  It’s about the Oregon people who follow us will work in, live in, play in, vacation in, and maybe, someday, fish in.  Our wild rivers are slipping away, bit by bit.  Our wild salmon are no more secure than the banks of the rivers where the trees are being cut, where trophy homes are replacing single-wide trailer homes, where the golf courses are being engineered.


Hope that helps, Chris.

Shortly, I will answer Chris’s blogosphere question about what I would do if I was the Hatchery God.


The Science of Salmon Resilience

The science of salmon resilience says that many of our salmon runs are not much at risk of extinction.

The complexity of equations that judge the resilience of  salmon is dizzying: depensatory effects of small population size; compensatory survival at low rearing density; genetic effects of hatchery fish; straying; habitat; random events; cyclic variation; fecundity; sex ratio; persistence time on spawning grounds; habitat volume and spawning distribution; homing fidelity; extinction vortex parameters; life-stage survival rates.

Scientists labor over parameters, assumptions, transformation, and error terms; run models to represent a thousand generations, or a century, testing scenarios of deteriorating, similar, or improving ocean conditions.

As I write, wild winter steelhead are spawning in coastal rivers.  Eggs are incubating in the gravel as they have for over ten thousand years.  Coho and Chinook fry are emerging from nooks and crannies, seeking shelter at river’s edge.  Sculpin and cutthroat steal precious little food from salmon these days; the coon and otter fight over too few carcasses.   An ecological rain of nutrients carried to these rivers from ocean, abundant for millennia, has withered to a barely recognizable trickle.

People are deeply divided over what the science of salmon resilience seems to be saying.  Some see a politically motivated sham, a contrivance to deny that salmon are in trouble.  Some think that the science of salmon resiliency is merely stupid, because these fish, quite obviously, are headed toward extinction.  Some, though, accept the science of salmon resiliency. Extinction is not an issue, they say.  Most of the people I know have quickly decided to accept it or reject the science of salmon resilience.

Personally, I don’t accept or reject, believe or disbelieve.

The science of salmon resilience is young, yet it claims to understand the soul of nature.  I listen, and consider the advice this young science gives.  I choose to resist outright acceptance or rejection of this young science.  I am optimistic when I read that salmon are likely to rebuild if we don’t mistreat them too much.  I choose to be skeptical when people claim science proves that salmon are bullet-proof.

Time will tell.


Wild Fish, Hatchery Fish, blah, blah,

Questions We All Should Answer

The e-mail arrived in my inbox last week.  Hi, my name is Chris.  I have been following your blog.  I am writing a personal profile for a Journalism Class and ……could I send you some questions, and…………..

Sure Chris.  Send the questions.  No promises.  I might want to share some of your thoughts on my blog; would that be OK?

Saturday.  The “question hand grenade”  hit my inbox with a thud.

Wow.  Decent questions.

This will take time.  I’ll answer some of Chris’s questions, but not now.

For now, I ask every reader who claims to love fish and fishing to try and answer these questions.

Making real progress for wild fish, for the future of fishing, depends on our collective answers.

Here are the questions Chris so thoughtfully posed.  Please wrestle with these.


* Describe your introduction to fishing.

* Who took you fishing?

* Was fishing something you immediately recognized as important to your life or did you come back to it later?

* How has fishing in Oregon changed over the years: tactics, marketing of the sport, hatchery influence, conservation, ODFW, fisherman’s attitudes?

* Is fishing in Oregon the same sport that hooked you in the beginning?

* What factors led to you making conservation and scientific study a part of your fishing?

* Do you think enough fisherman take into account the science behind our rivers?

* Is it possible to be pro hatchery and pro wild fish at the same time?

* Do the fish need the fishing community to be both pro-wild and pro-hatchery?

Now for the heavy stuff —

* What is good/bad about hatcheries where wild fish are concerned?

* Describe the science behind implementing a hatchery program on a stream?

* As an ODFW employee, what factors did you see influencing policy making besides science and the best interest of the fish and fisherman?

* What has led to the fishing community breaking into factions?  Bait fisherman, fly fisherman, conservationists, etc.

* Can everyone get along and work together as an angling melting pot to save our fisheries?

* How can we work to find some middle ground?

* If you were deemed the god of hatchery management in Oregon, what changes would you make?

* What do you see as the biggest misconceptions by the everyday angler about hatcheries and their effect on wild fish?

* With our fisheries in such bad shape, is it acceptable for any fishermen to be taking from the stream without giving back through conservation?

* What do you see in the future for hatchery and wild fish?


Thank you Chris.  We all have some homework to do.