Program gives more fishermen a chance at salmon

TOLEDO – A few years down the road, anglers on the Cowlitz River will be catching spring chinook and steelhead that right now call a gravel pit in south Lewis County home.

The spring chinook fry are brought down every fall from the state-run salmon hatchery near Salkum to imprint on the smell of the water in different locations, including the gravel pit at Wallace Rock Products just north of the Lewis-Cowlitz county line.

Coordinators for the fish-rearing project say it’s all about creating a sense of home for thousands of young fish.

The pit is a few dozen yards from a horseshoe bend in the Cowlitz River, and the underground mixing of the water lets the fish catch the scent of the flowing water.

After the salmon get used to the smell, they’ll follow it back from the Pacific Ocean four years from now and spawn in that stretch of river.

Fishermen love that, especially compared to the alternative – having the state hatchery release all of its nearly 1 million spring fry from the salmon hatchery about 20 miles upstream at the Salkum Barrier Dam. In that case, fish ready to spawn race straight upstream to the hatchery, bypassing fishermen along the way.

Instead of a gantlet of fishermen fighting over the sites next to the hatcheries, this program helps ensure fish are more spread throughout the river, “so everyone has decent fishing on the Cowlitz,” said Don Glaser, president of Friends of the Cowlitz, whose volunteers raise the fish once they’re brought to the remote rearing sites.

Recently, the group’s volunteers, including Tim McLean of Salkum, spent the morning not catching fish, but throwing them back by the thousands.

“Come on, little fishy. I’m not a net fisherman,” McLean called out with a laugh as he scooped up dozens of the big-eyed fish in a net. They were dumped in a bucket to be weighed on an electric scale and counted as they were slipped one by one back into the mesh net pen.

Larona LaVallie, hatchery manager for the Cowlitz Salmon Hatchery, said the only thing the state Department of Fish and Wildlife-run salmon hatchery does is provide some fish out of the 967,000 spring chinook they raised last year. They plan to release the rest from the hatchery over the next week.

“It’s clean water,” LaVallie said from a dirt berm between the pond and the river. “The fish do really well here.”

As she studied the young fish, other volunteers and hatchery workers cobbled together lengths of flexible pipe connected to a flared opening in the fish pen.

The other end of the pipe was connected to a steel pipe embedded in the dirt berm. It comes out on the other side near a willow-covered bank of the river.

A pump on top of the berm eventually started pulling the fish from the lake to the river. Workers held the pipe high over the clear water of the Cowlitz, spraying the fish into the air so they wouldn’t collide.

The fish tend to quickly sprint for the ocean, LaVallie said.

She said biologists followed them once after their release and saw many of the young fish make the trip from Lewis County to the salt water at the mouth of the Columbia – more than 80 miles – in eight hours.

About 55,000 spring chinook were brought to the Wallace Rock pond in October in an annual ritual for Friends of the Cowlitz. After their release, the fisheries association spent the rest of the week cleaning and drying the pens. Then, they’ll be filled with steelhead. Glaser said he was disappointed that the state will only provide about 18,000 steelhead for his fish group, instead of the 100,000 originally planned.

He blames poor operations of the hatchery’s ozone system to purify water used to raise the young fish, saying the equipment was run at a low rate that allowed disease to spread.

Mark Johnson, manager of the state’s trout and salmon hatcheries, said there was a virulent strain of infectious haematopoietic necrosis, or IHM, disease last summer in most hatcheries in southwest Washington, including among the Cowlitz steelhead.

They lost 60 percent of the summer run steelhead and 40 percent of the early winter, he said. He conceded that there were technical difficulties with the hatchery’s ozone treatment purification.

“We don’t know for sure if that was the cause, because it was widespread through southwest Washington, but we might have let the infection through,” Johnson said.

There were also infections in 2002 and the mid-1990s, Johnson said.

Friends of the Cowlitz operates net pens for rainbow trout in Mayfield Lake, behind one of Tacoma Power’s dams, and four more salmon pens near the town of Toledo in another gravel pit. McLean knows the fish they release have a hard life ahead, from hungry birds to fishermen’s nets.

Out of nearly a million chinook fry released, about 18,000 will make it back, the volunteer said. Still, he’s glad to help with the project.

“If I want my girls and boy to catch fish and have the opportunities I had, we need to keep these little programs going,” McLean said.

The chinook salmon will probably be 16 to 20 pounds when they return in four years. That’s not very impressive to Gail Wallace, whose brother Don owned the gravel pit for decades and has now transferred it to his son Randy.

Gail Wallace, 74, remembers 60-pound salmon that would make the river come alive when he was growing up – before Tacoma’s city utility built two hydroelectric dams upstream.

Waters flowing out of the dam don’t mimic natural flows, Wallace believes, creating an environment where salmon can’t spawn naturally.

“People nowadays don’t even realize what used to be here,” Wallace said.

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