Fishing for answers, anglers question effects of drawdown

Kristy Tallman

Springtime may seem a lifetime away here in January, however to those who fish it’s just a minute away. The fishermen in and around Sweet Home have their curiosity up as was evident this week on Facebook.

It started with a post inquiring as to if there had been a mass die-off at the South Santiam Fish Hatchery which fortunately was just a rumor gone wrong. To date there has not been any die-off since the Kokanee die-off that occurred during the drawdown back in October 2023 according to Nick Gilbo, Fish & Wildlife Technician at the hatchery.

Gilbo has worked at the South Santiam Fish Hatchery for nearly 24 years so we were fortunate to get his input and experience to help us with some of these questions anglers are having. His work around the hatchery consists of raising spring Chinook, summer steelhead and rainbow trout. They also work spring Chinook, summer steelhead and winter steelhead at the traps.

A rumor came up regarding a parasite issue on the summer steelhead juveniles due to the mud and silt. According to Gilbo,” On the summer steelhead juveniles, we did have a severely increased load of parasites. Due to that mud and silt.” he added.

“All that water being flushed out to a level that’s never been seen before and you’re stirring things up in the water column and you’re shoving more bugs, more mud, more stuff down and it’s never been seen before. Well it didn’t hurt the Chinook, at all, as we can see, but it did really load the steelhead up full of parasites.”

Gilbo said the parasitic problem wouldn’t be an issue for those fishing for the steelhead as the parasites have been taken care of.

“We took care of the parasites on them. The pathologist was just here yesterday. She said they are back to normal load.” Problem resolved.

Many folks have been wondering if the winter Chinook returned in plenty this year or if their populations had been affected by the drawdown. Gilbo stated this year and last they had above average returns on the Chinook.

They should know as they have to truck these fish up the mountain. “We collect them at the trap, we count them, we sex them, put equal number of males and females, tag them with numbers, take some genetic samples and then we truck them up to either Quartzville or the Middle Fork,” Gilbo explained.

Down at the hatchery other folks were concerned about the silt running through the tanks and filtration systems. Gilbo conceded things were pretty bad previously but the water has been improving. “The silt,” he says, “doesn’t bother the fish or the filtration system.

“The silt is really light and fine, it just flows in and flows out no problem.” He stated further the fish would be minimally impacted by the silt due to these same reasons. “It’s not good on their gills necessarily but it’s really light and fluffy so it doesn’t, so far as we know, it doesn’t have a negative impact on the fish that we’ve seen.”

He did state that the fish do have trouble finding their food due to the silt which would cause them not to eat, however they have since adjusted their feeding habits to accommodate for the disruption. Instead of feeding them once, they now feed them several times lightly so it’s easier for the fish to find their food.

Bass and sunfish seemed to be of great curiosity for anglers wondering how the drawdown may have affected other species of fish not so often talked about since they are not native to Oregon. According to Gilbo, regardless of species folks are inquiring about, there will be no answers until the seasons begin and the fishing begins.

“They’re going to have to find out,” he said, “you’re going to have to wait for Green Peter to fill back up, and then clear up so people can go fishing and they’re going to be the ones that find out in a hurry.”

“If they want to go back to their favorite spots, yeah, they’re the ones who’s going to find out and let the rest of us know.”

Gilbo explained he wished he had more answers to some of the questions presented. “This is new to us, new to Oregon,” he said “It’s never been done before so everything is a wait and see.”

He believes the silt will settle in time for summer recreation and says the process has made quite a bit of progress. “It’s already cleaned up considerably from what it was here, I think it should be fine. It’s made quite a bit of progress.”

Currently this is an expected three year study, however due to current litigation in progress it’s uncertain whether the schedule will be adhered to or if it will occur at all.

When asked further about the native cutthroat trout, bass in the lower river and chub populations, he says of them too he doesn’t know. “Nobody knows,” he says, “this is new to everyone. It’s going to take the researchers to bring us that information.”

Due to the current state of the water and the continued uncertainty folks have regarding the drawdown, many wondered would the salmon and juvenile steelhead continue to be released by the hatchery. According to Gilbo, since the water started being raised they have let 300k salmon and steelhead go in November, 300k will be released in February and another 468k go in March. “We have to wait for them to get to size before they can be let go.”

The population of fish in general, according to Gilbo, is a rollercoaster by nature. “Each year is a gamble, just like fishing. Sometimes you get a good catch while others you catch nothing. In a controlled environment things are predictable but out in the wild nature decides more often than not, it’s a true rollercoaster.”

Many questions presented to Gilbo were deferred to the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW) or the Army Corp of Engineers for further comment. When asked if there was a vote today to do this drawdown again would they vote yea or nay. We were told, firstly, it’s a question for the higher ups, but secondly, due to this never being attempted before, there’s no way for many folks’ questions to have instant answers.

At time of press, The New Era had spoken with ODFW but were asked to submit our questions in writing. Stay tuned, there’s definitely more answers to come.

Gilbo invites any and all who would like to come down to the hatchery to do so. Self-guided tours are available from 7:30 a.m. to dusk and guided tours for groups from 7:30 a.m. to 4:20 p.m. Monday through Sunday.