PRECEPT #7 THE FIRST SUMMER STEELHEAD THAT LEAVE THE OCEAN ON A SPAWNING RUN ARE BIG FISH
6/9/13: early fresh-run wild summer steelhead in Big Bend Pool. Notice their shadows.
The term big when applied to summer steelhead-to me-means at least half again larger than the average for a population. As most North Umpqua anglers know, the average summer steelhead native to Steamboat Creek is an eight-pound fish. A steelhead that was half again larger would be a twelve pound steelhead. I don't know what big means to you . . . but I am the one writing this piece.
The valid literature-this does not include the propagandized babble of the ODFW information sheets and other gray literature-indicates that the first summer steelhead and other Pacific salmon to show up in freshwater are usually male. Now, since the size of female Pacific salmon is under tighter control (they are quite a bit more likely to be average in size), the largest and smallest fish in a salmon population are much more likely to be male. Since the first steelhead of a run are probably going to be male, this could mean that there is a somewhat higher likelihood that the initial steelhead of any run may be at least a bit larger.
That said, over the last fifteen seasons at Big Bend Pool this doesn't generally seem to be the case.
Another influential factor at play is that the first steelhead I see at the pool during May, June, and early July are quite bright and usually retain the aquamarine back, silver side, and white belly that are camouflage in the ocean. These colors are pretty good camouflage in fresh water too, particularly when the creek is running high and blue-green from snow melting at higher elevations. These minimally metamorphosed fish virtually disappear. Often at this time, the shadow it casts on the bottom of the pool are more visible than the steelhead itself is. Under these conditions, it is harder to see the size of the fish in question.
SUMMER STEELHEAD ANGLER PRECEPTS
ON THE NORTH UMPQUA RIVER
HATCHERIES AND WILD PACIFIC STEELHEAD POPULATIONS
Dead wild summer steelhead just below Steamboat Falls ladder on July 13 th, 2012. The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW) put in this ladder in the late fifties of the 20 th Century and it never worked but rather uniformly blocked for more than sixty years. These blockages prevented the passage of the early part of the wild summer steelhead run every year. The ODFW often waited until late June and early July before removing the stones and woody debris that plugged the ladder. The water temperature was sometimes 70 by this time.
It was not the first precept I heard from the fonts of river scuttlebutt but sooner or later anyone who regularly fishes for steelhead will wonder about hatcheries and ask someone about them. Rather than the half-truths, exaggeration, and outright lies that I was uniformly fed during my early years by the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW), I finally learned at the end of my own very long quest that the only way to get accurate info about hatcheries-and their complex ramifications-was to talk to people not affiliated with hatchery programs in any way. Hatchery people have controlled virtually all of the information sources for more than six human generations-especially the most accessible sources-and they are primarily interested in telling the public what they have trained the public to want to hear-that hatcheries and hatchery fish help wild steelhead populations. This simply is not true.
Over the last twenty years things have changed and there have begun to be excellent alternate sources of information to compare with ODFW propaganda. These include: Upstream: Salmon and Society in the Pacific Northwest (1996) by the National Research Council (the publication arm of the national academy of sciences); Salmon without Rivers (1999) and Salmon, People, and Place (2013) by Jim Lichatowich; all of the published articles by Bill Bakke, such as Hatcheries Change Salmonids in One Generation in The Osprey, A Newsletter Published by the Steelhead Committee, Federation of Flyfishers (January 2000) Issue No. 36; Atlas of Pacific Salmon (2005) by Xanthippe Augerot, Charles Steinback, and Salmon Nation: People and Fish at the Edge (1999) by Andrew Fuller; Elizabeth Woody, S. Zuckerman, and E. Wolf.
Using the wild summer steelhead of Steamboat Creek as an example, please consider the following things.
Wild summer steelhead on their natal gravels naturally and successfully fertilize the same proportion of eggs-and without necessarily killing the fish-as does the ODFW at their hatcheries with their knives and buckets.
In the natural stream, from fertilization on, these wild eggs/fry/parr are interacting with the lethal forces of natural selection in a myriad different ways that never pause or stop: probably millions of different ways over their first two years as juveniles in fresh water. These adaptive influences in natural streams cause most of the juvenile wild steelhead to die before they reproduce or even get to the salt-water phase in their complex life histories. Only about 5% of the original naturally propagated eggs survive to get to the smolt life stage which marks their entry into the marine environment. These survivors, however, are as tough and resilient as they can be.
In the hatchery, the fertile eggs/fry/parr are coddled. The individuals are fed (they don't chase down their food), they are regularly flushed with antiseptics and antibiotics-because the hatchery juveniles massed in their thousands in concrete tanks are unsanitary and disease vectors-and they are protected from larger predators (they don't even need to learn to flee). Additionally, hatchery fry do not get the exercise of swimming against a great variety of different currents and in their concrete pens they do not have a hint of the mass of sensory stimulations that the wild fry get from the world of the natural stream.
Lethal interactions and potential lethal interactions are minimized in hatcheries, but always in the background is the reality that the thickly inhabited concrete pens are harboring terrible diseases that will sooner or later break out . . . most recently disease caused the closure of Rock Creek Hatchery for at least two or three seasons. But, hey Yay!, daftly thinking that they bypassed natural selection, the hatcheries say they believe they are victorious in their industrial struggle against nature because about 96% of the generation of artificially propagated steelhead survive to smolt stage. Interestingly though [is it?], these hatchery smolts are not particularly tough and nor are they resilient.
In the spring, wild parr undergo the metamorphoses that change them from parr into smolts and, from many different stream reaches throughout the thousands of square miles of the North Umpqua Basin, small groups of these smolts start their journeys to the ocean. Wild summer steelhead smolts finally enter the salt water in small clusters scattered over many weeks. Sooner or later, the ODFW lets their artificial smolts leave the hatchery and they form a prodigious mass of five-inch-long hatchery fish, so large a mass of smolts that the attention of predators becomes focused on them and on the few small populations of wild smolts coincidentally associated with them. And, furthermore, each and every time the ODFW releases their smolts, this agency is devoutly hoping against hope (crossing their fingers behind their back in the process) that these smolts don't turn around and, rather than heading for the sea, go back up further into the fluvial basin that hosts the hatchery.
Now a significant thing happens, a thing only extremely rarely reported to the public by the ODFW. During their time in the ocean, the tough and resilient wild summer steelhead that have propagated naturally are quite successful in comparison with the artificially propagated steelhead. Of the wild steelhead that entered the ocean, about 40% survive to re-enter their natal river on their way to their headwater spawning gravels. Of the hatchery steelhead, less than 2% o 3% survive their time in the marine environment.
Further, the first two years spent being coddled in the concrete pens of the hatcheries have measurably and indelibly reduced the genetic diversity of the artificial steelhead, this is true even if wild brood stock has been used. In addition, these hatchery steelhead are also significantly less successful at reproducing. Further, this compromised reproductive ability of hatchery steelhead continues through at least three generations if a given hatchery smolt manages to mate naturally with a wild summer steelhead.
Haven't you wondered why, with all the counting the ODFW does-at Winchester Dam, in the hatcheries, in Big Bend Pool, and elsewhere-this agency's personnel never mention what the percentage of the hatchery adults returning from the marine environment is of the number of eggs ODFW people have fertilized? After all, they count each and every egg and smolt at the hatchery before releasing them and at Winchester Dam they can count the returning adult hatchery fish. Ask yourself why the percentages of returning adults which are counted each year at Winchester Dam are not compared with the number of hatchery smolts released two years before or the number of artificially propagated eggs fertilized? The ODFW has these numbers.
Now, because of the wholesale slaughter of hatchery steelhead in the ocean, don't get the impression that the existence of hatchery fish in the North Umpqua River isn't a problem to wild summer steelhead. About two hundred wild summer steelhead are killed by the hatchery every year to supply eggs for the hatchery and, on a season of pretty much average ocean conditions, one to two thousand more hatchery summer steelhead return to the North Umpqua than wild steelhead.
It is during the years of poor ocean conditions that versatility and resilience of the naturally propagated wild summer steelhead really shows. Examination of the ODFW's history of hatchery and wild summer steelhead passing over Winchester Dam clearly shows that the worse the ocean conditions are the higher the relative numbers of wild fish numbers are relative to the hatchery fish. Wild summer steelhead numbers decline when ocean conditions are diminished, but this decline only averages 38% of the average when ocean conditions are better. When ocean conditions are diminished, hatchery summer steelhead numbers fall precipitately by an average of 65%.
Using as an example, the particularly poor ocean conditions of 1983 when a profound El Nino was influencing marine productivity, 3,301 wild summer steelhead and only 905 hatchery summer steelhead returned to the North Umpqua Basin. Three years before, in 1980, numbers of wild and hatchery summer steelhead were virtually equal.
It is when ocean conditions are good that there are many more hatchery fish than wild fish. The high count for summer steelhead returning to the North Umpqua River was in 1987 when 20,725 returned to the river and 15,725 of them were artificially propagated and 5,388 were naturally propagated wild summer steelhead. And four years later, the numbers of wild and hatchery summer steelhead were again virtually equal. So, again, how are hatcheries helping wild summer steelhead?
Having introduced these historic data concerning hatchery and wild summer steelhead numbers counted in the North Umpqua Basin in the 1980s, let me give you an idea of what the number of wild summer steelhead was that ran prior to their "management" with hatcheries. The information contained in The Umpqua River Study, a joint report by the Fish Commission of Oregon and The Oregon State Game Commission in 1946, was used to deduce that during 1926 (when another profound El Nino was influencing ocean productivity) a minimum number of 11,029 wild summer steelhead returned to the North Umpqua River.
If my very limited ability with math doesn't fail me (using the average decline of 38% I have established for wild North Umpqua summer steelhead over the last sixty-eight years when marine conditions are diminished yields) somewhat more than 15,000 wild summer steelhead returning to the North Umpqua Basin in 1926.
And please bear in mind that in 1926-besides severe El Nino conditions-commercial fishing for salmon was in full swing. "From 1916 to 1923 the fishing intensity gradually increased. Then, in 1924, sixteen additional gillnet boats were brought from the Colombia to the Umpqua River. This, coupled with the success of the previous season's fishery, raised the fishing intensity to an all time high in 1924." There was also a permanent egg weir in place near the mouth of Rock Creek which had been collecting steelhead and other Pacific salmon eggs since the turn of the 20th Century.
How can we account for these large numbers of wild summer steelhead? An important part of the reason for this is that in 1926 there were no hatchery operations having a negative effect on the numbers of the wild steelhead (as has been shown by every peer-reviewed study of the interactions of hatchery and wild salmon in the same basins).
Minimally, it can be stated that management by the ODFW of the wild summer steelhead in the North Umpqua Basin-and in other Oregon river and creek basins no doubt-has had a disgraceful and a tragic effect on the populations of wild summer steelhead native to this basin and believe me, this agency is still up to these shinanigans .
The local ODFW knows how many fertile eggs they have produced with their knives and buckets, how many smolts leave the hatchery, and-via the automated video record at Winchester Dam-how many of these smolts return as adults. It should be an easy thing to present the public with a twenty year or a sixty year table of these numbers.
And, if you ask and are told by the ODFW that its not so easy; if they say we don't have enough money or personnel to do this: why not? I can't think of a more informative set of numbers to help us understand what more than hundred-thirty-five years of hatcheries for Pacific salmon on the west coast of North America have done. Take the pressure offwild steelhead and other wild salmon populations hatcheries haven't done.
I will stop here. These are some of the reasons, actually only a very very few of the reasons, why I consider hatcheries the biggest problem faced by wild steelhead and other Pacific salmon populations. This is why it seems to me that hatcheries are to naturally propagated steelhead populations what a weed whacker is to flowers in a wetland.
And hatcheries in the Pacific Northwest cost the tax payer millions and millions of dollars each and every year.
The best thing that could happen is that all hatcheries be closed never to open again. This is unequivocal. At a cost ofnothing, wild steelhead and other Pacific salmon populations could begin to rebuild themselves.
There would, of course, be regulation changes that go along with the disappearance of-YAY!-hatcheries: but for Heck's sake, isn't it about time. These changes would have to be truly conservation oriented and not merely stopgaps.
 In case you were wondering, a local population-and its gene pool-is the steelhead group in which breeding occurs. Populations are locally adapted and largely reproductively isolated through the functioning of the homing mechanism, that is, migrating to their natal stream and spawning naturally.
It can reasonably be argued that it is impossible for a generation of hatchery fish to make up a population. To state that they could would distort the meaning of population (and other words) into uselessness because a generation of artificial fish was gathered haphazardly through human intervention, spawned artificially-by-passing sexual selection. Undermining the terms of discourse is an favorite obfuscation technique used by hatchery people. An example of just this type of mendacity was in play when a representative of the local ODFW office announced that a wild population had been formed by escaped hatchery fish.
 One of the lies I was told by the Umpqua Basin Fish Biologist of the time was: "It's the public that wants fish hatcheries, we're just doing what they tell us to." He was monkeying with a pencil and dividing his attention between it and me.
 The local ODFW kills all of the wild fish they use for breeding purposes.
 Bakke, Bill M. 2000 Hatcheries Change Salmonids in One Generation, in The Osprey, A Newsletter Published by the Steelhead Committee, Federation of Flyfishers. Issue No. 36, January 2000.
Do Wild Fish Need Hatcheries Or Do Hatcheries NeedWild Fish? by Lee Spencer. You can read this paper as Appendix 7 in my natural history notes for 2013 which are archived on The North Umpqua Foundation web page.
 In 1980 there were 5,262 wild summer steelhead and 5,032 hatchery summer steelhead counted as they crossed Winchester Dam.
On 1991, there were 2,534 wild summer steelhead and 2,339 hatchery summer steelhead counted as they crossed Winchester Dam.
 These two agencies were later joined to become The Oregon Department of fish and Wildlife.
Wild Fish on an El Nino Year? Past Abundance of Wild Summer Steelhead in the North Umpqua Basin by Lee Spencer. You can also read this paper as Appendix 10 in my natural history notes for 2013 which are archived on The North Umpqua Foundation web page.