MAUPIN — Leif Rinearson is surrounded by PVC pipes and an aluminum box as steelhead, trout and suckers swim unseen down around the feet of his waders in the cold stream.
Rinearson is here on Buck Hollow Creek seven days a week, sorting fish that have swum into the weir, a construction used to trap fish on their trip upstream in this tributary of the Deschutes River.
The purpose of the weir is to separate wild steelhead from hatchery steelhead in crucial spawning streams, a process that will lead to more wild steelhead in the Deschutes, according to Russell Bassett of the Native Fish Society, based in Molalla.
The weir project — which includes weirs on Bakeoven Creek in Maupin and Buck Hollow Creek a few miles north of Maupin — is funded by the Native Fish Society and the Oregon Wildlife Heritage Foundation, and is operated by the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife.
Knee-deep in the creek, Rinearson picks up fish after fish from the trap in which he stands. Most fish — wild steelhead, rainbow trout, suckers, whitefish — he takes out of the trap and sends on their way upstream.
But hatchery steelhead he keeps, to send to a pathologist for Portland General Electric in Madras, who will study them for diseases.
By excluding the hatchery steelhead from spawning areas, the ODFW hopes to limit the number of spawning hatchery fish.
“We know hatchery fish are not nearly as fit at reproducing as wild fish,” says Jason Seals, a fisheries biologist for the ODFW in The Dalles. “We want to get an idea of how many hatchery fish are coming into tributaries and what the impacts may be. They’re mainly out-of-basin stray (hatchery steelhead).”
The Middle Columbia Technical Recovery Team identified stray hatchery steelhead as a significant obstacle to the recovery of wild steelhead in the Deschutes and John Day rivers, according to the ODFW.
Over the last 20 years, the annual wild run of Deschutes River steelhead averaged 2,200 fish while the hatchery run averaged 11,000 fish, according to the Native Fish Society.
Steelhead are large, oceangoing rainbow trout that return to streams to spawn.
The ODFW manages for wild steelhead in the Deschutes — which is world renowned for its fall steelhead fishing — and the Native Fish Society has its reasons for protecting these fish.
But why should the ordinary angler care that there are far more hatchery steelhead than wild steelhead in the Lower Deschutes?
Well, apparently wild steelhead are much more aggressive biters than the hatchery fish. In 2008, only 20 percent of the Deschutes steelhead run was wild, yet wild fish constituted 71 percent of the catch, according to the ODFW. In 2007, wild steelhead were 13 percent of the run but 60 percent of the catch.
“Even though we have an increasingly high proportion of hatchery fish, in the creel we see about three wild fish for one hatchery fish,” Seals says.
“It’s the difference of biters,” Bassett adds. “From the sporting side, that’s a big thing.”
All wild steelhead caught in the Deschutes must be released unharmed. Anglers may keep three hatchery steelhead, which are marked by a clipped adipose fin, per day.
Many steelhead anglers would rather catch and release wild steelhead than catch and keep hatchery steelhead.
“My customers don’t come to kill a fish, they come to catch one,” says Brad Staples, a licensed fishing guide on the Lower Deschutes. “If it’s a wild one, they’re excited about it. Steelhead fishermen realize the wild fish have to go back — they’re not upset. They can get pictures.”
The ODFW placed a weir on Trout Creek, near Warm Springs, in 2006, and the weirs on Bakeoven and Buck Hollow creeks began operation in late January of this year. The three streams are the main spawning grounds for wild steelhead in the Deschutes.
The weirs on Bakeoven and Buck Hollow consist of PVC pipes built across the stream, each no more than one inch apart. The entrance into the aluminum weir box is six inches wide, making it the only place for the fish to go as they try to continue swimming upstream to spawn.
Between late January and late April, 356 wild steelhead were passed upstream and 37 hatchery steelhead have been stopped at the Buck Hollow weir, according to the ODFW.
Rinearson says the biggest native steelhead he has passed upstream was 33 inches long. Most of the steelhead he handles in the weirs are between 22 and 26 inches, he says.
Watching Rinearson release the glistening, red-streaked steelhead back into Buck Hollow so they can continue on their spawning quest offers a rare chance to see the magnificent fish up close.
Says Bassett: “We’re all about giving wild fish a chance.”