As some of you already know, Lake Billy Chinook is formed by the confluence of 3 different winding rivers: The Metolius, The Deschutes, and the Crooked River. These rivers home some of the Pacific Northwest’s most sought after fish by fisherman, including the Steelhead Trout.
The steelhead is a rainbow trout that migrates to sea as a juvenile and returns to freshwater as an adult to spawn. Steelhead are not only one of Oregon’s prized gamefish (and fished for at Lake Billy Chinook), but they are also a vital species for the healthy functioning of river ecosystems. They are considered a “keystone” species for watersheds, and when they are removed from rivers, insects overpopulate and there is more limited resource for fish eating animals (humans, bears, and raptors included!).
In my journey to learn more about fish in Lake Billy Chinook, I found myself with a few questions. How do these endangered fish make it to Lake Billy, and what can we do to help? Luckily, our neighboring USFW representatives at Round Butte Complex invited me to come along and experience, first hand, one of the many important steps to steelhead and salmon recovery: releasing fry into the streams.
Baby steelhead (also known as fry’s or fingerlings) are released into gentle, cold water creeks that provide for ample environments for survival. These releases take place throughout the state, in attempt to re-establish species in our creeks, rivers, and lakes. Since 2008, over 1.2 million fry have been outplanted in the Metolius, Crooked River, and Deschutes rivers and adjacent creeks.
The process of this fry release was what I would describe as “carefully adventurous”. First, thousands of fish are carefully transported from the Round Butte Hatchery near Madras, in containers of oxygenated water, to the destination point. In this instance, the destination point was the trailhead to Alder Creek.
Shortly after arriving at the trailhead, representatives from ODFW, Portland General Electric, The Confederated Tribes of the Warm Springs, and other volunteers prepared their packs for the mile-long journey to come. Then, carefully, the fish were placed into 5 gallon bags with oxygenated water, each bag weighing roughly 25-40 pounds. Each volunteer placed 1 – 2 bags in their backpacks to be hiked down to the creek side.
I will tell you, you have never felt a sensation like hiking with 5 pounds of water and little fishies, awkward swimming on your back. I felt like a walking, swishy waterbed. I kept thinking about the fish and what they must be thinking:
After a beautiful winding hike through exposed grassland, old burn, and wildflowers down to Alder Creek, each individual found an appropriate location to release the fry. Before releasing the fish, we acclimated them to the stream water for a few minutes, and then, wala!!! Welcome to your new home little trout!
In the long term, fish specialists are hopeful that there will be positive populations of not only steelhead, but Chinook and sockeye salmon in Central Oregon’s rivers. It was really awesome to gain this perspective of all the work that agencies, councils, conservation groups, and other special interest groups are doing to keep our rivers healthy and flourishing with fish. Can’t wait for these little guys to return to Lake Billy in Chinook in a few years, and feel lucky to be a part of their journey to the ocean and back!