Part Two: Fishermen’s Pleas for the Deschutes River Wild Fish
by Terry Otto
Will the Deschutes River’s world-class wild fisheries be the price of reintroduction?
Every bit as legendary as the Clark’s Fork, the Umpqua, or the Yellowstone, the Deschutes River in central Oregon is one of the west’s best wild trout fisheries, and anglers worldwide have dreamt of one day framing a perfect cast over the river against the background of the rugged sage-filled canyon.
Anglers come from all corners of the globe to test their skills against Deschutes River steelhead and redband trout. Both fish are famous for their willingness to take a well-presented surface or sub-surface fly, and both are famous for line-burning runs and power to spare.
And yet, the reintroduction project at the Round Butte Dam in the upstream reaches of the river is threatening these fisheries. Managers and biologists at Portland General Electric, (PGE), are attempting to restore Chinook, sockeye and steelhead to the Metolious River and other tributaries of the lake.
Over 150 million dollars were spent on the tower and other facilities changes, but after four years of returns the numbers are not impressive. The lake’s kokanee have proved a poor stock for ocean migration, out-migrating Chinook smolts are fighting lake-born infections of copepods, and production of steelhead in the tributaries above the lake has been dismal.
Lower Deschutes River insect hatches altered
Meanwhile, in the lower river the changes have been profound. Brad staples has been a fishing and rafting guide on the lower Deschutes River since 1983. “For 60 years the mayfly hatch has happened at the same time as the trout post-spawn,” says Staples. “The trout gorged on them to recover from their spawn. “ Mayflies are a giant bug-sometimes reaching three inches long. That prime source of protein now hatches earlier, and is not as well timed for the trout.
John Smeraglio has also guided fly fishing trips on the river since the 80’s, and he has watched the insect life struggle to adapt. “Just this last year we lost the crane-fly hatch,” says Smeraglio. “It’s gone.”
McMillan and others have observed a new form of algae in the lower river, and it is coating the river bottom in places and pushing out insects. The warmer water and the extra nutrients are feeding this organism, which removes the CO2 in the water, and elevates the pH. Indeed, in early July of 2015, a warning was issued against swimming in Lake Billy Chinook because of elevated pH levels.
Deschutes River steelhead: run timing shifts
The river’s other gold-medal fishery, the summer steelhead, have also taken a hit. Steelhead used to enter a cooler Deschutes in June and by July the fishery was kicking. McMillan says the new regimen “Is clearly affecting the steelhead migration. It used to start in June, and really pick up in July, and the peak was in August. Now, there’s no June fish, few July fish, and the peak is in September and October.”
PGE has not completely ignored the ruckus it has caused with fishermen. According to Spateholts, the agency has undertaken some serious steps to gauge the problem. “We have begun a two year extensive study to collect data on the river processes,” he says. They will study algae, nutrient load, engage in macroinvertebrate sampling, and more. This study will give scientists a much better understanding of what these changes are doing to the water quality in the river.
While McMillan is very happy to see the agency study begin, he feels the agency should try a little adaptive management, and have some back-up plans in place, so they can be ready to roll if changes are needed. He expresses a healthy skepticism about the agencies motives, and wonders if they will be happy just to study the problem.
Meanwhile, anglers are stuck on the sidelines. It’s possible that these new species may one day recover, and add to the existing fisheries. While some may find the prospect of 200,000 sockeye in the Deschutes River to be a good thing, others do not share that view. “Sockeye don’t bite in fresh water,” says Staples. “They will just get snagged and get in the way of steelhead fishing.” also “I would love for PGE to realize that what they’ve been doing isn’t working, obviously,” he continues. “Let’s take another look at this.”
Smeraglio thinks it is time to shelve the entire project. ‘They should just let the river be what it is,” he says, “This experiment is costing us the river.”
Sidebar: Fish kill discovered on the Deschutes River
Retired Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife fisheries biologist Steve Pribyl, a board member of the Deschutes River Alliance, discovered a fish kill of sockeye salmon on the lower river near Rattlesnake Rapid on July 4th weekend. He found 13 sockeye, many of them dead, and the others showing signs of heat stress. Alliance members have recorded water temps as high as 74 degrees in the lower Deschutes this summer. The fish were observed in a very short reach, and Pribyl speculates there could be many more dead fish. With summer just beginning, the Alliance is worried about more and bigger kills.
The Deschutes River Alliance
PO Box 440
Maupin, OR 97037
Brad staples, fishing and rafting Guide, 503-250-0558
John Smeraglio, Deschutes Canyon Fly Shop, (541) 395-2565
Photos courtesy of the Deschutes River Alliance