A trail-blazing salmon swims in the Metolius

October 8, 2012
A trail-blazing salmon swims in the Metolius

The fish is the first sockeye to be seen so far upstream since reintroduction efforts started

By Dylan J. Darling  

Scanning a stretch of the Metolius River near Camp Sherman recently, Mike Gauvin spotted the bright colors of a historic fish — the first salmon seen over spawning beds here in about 45 years.

“I just saw a red flash in the water," said Gauvin, a fisheries scientist with the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife.

The fish, which had the hooked jaw and humped back indicative of a male sockeye, carried a pair of neon green tags next to its dorsal fin. The tags indicate the fish is one of the first wave returning from the Pacific Ocean to explore the waters upstream of the Pelton Round Butte dam complex near Madras in a reintroduction of salmon that started this year.

Since June, scientists with the state, Portland General Electric and the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs have released 48 fish carrying radio transmitters into Lake Billy Chinook above the dams. Fourteen spring-run chinook salmon and 34 sockeye salmon are fitted with the tracking gear, including the fish Gauvin saw swimming over a redd, or a gravel bed holding fish egg packets.

The tribes and PGE own the dams, which produce enough power to supply a town the size of Salem, and started preparing for the reintroduction program more than a decade ago as part of a new federal license. They paid more than $100 million for a submerged tower designed to guide young fish downstream, remedying the blockade the dams have presented since the late 1960s.

In all there have been 114 fish — 25 chinook, 85 sockeye and four steelhead — released into the lake, with more steelhead returning now. Spawning season is ending for chinook, starting for sockeye and won't begin again until next year for steelhead.

Gauvin's find is the only one to be seen at spawning beds so far.

Tracking the fish with radio transmitters on the Metolius on Wednesday, Megan Hill, native fish studies team leader for PGE, kept watch for spawning salmon.

She found none, but she did locate the sockeye eyed Sept. 27 by Gauvin. The fish was about a mile upstream from where Gauvin saw it, she said, indicating it may have not spawned yet. The fish die shortly after they spawn.

“Once it dies we will recover its carcass, (and) it will give us some additional information about spawning success," Hill said.

Gauvin was out surveying for kokanee when he spied the sockeye. Kokanee and sockeye are the same species of fish. Butkokanee are landlocked and live their entire lives in freshwater; sockeye swim to the ocean and then return to the fresh water of their birth in order to spawn.

When PGE and the tribes finished the fish tower in 2009, it created the option for the fish to stay in Lake Billy Chinook and be kokanee or swim to the Pacific and be sockeye. In August, the first returning run of sockeye started arriving at a fish trap near the most downstream dam of the complex. Scientists put the fish into a truck, hauled them around the dams and released them into Lake Billy Chinook.

While a fish ladder and an overhead cable tram made it possible for fish to move upstream around the dam complex when it was completed in 1964, the currents of Lake Billy Chinook left fish searching for the ocean lost. In 1968, a fish hatchery was built at the dam complex. The sockeye run ended as the hatchery focused on chinook salmon and steelhead.

Thousands of kokanee spawn upstream of the dams, but less than 100 sockeye do so, said Jessica Sall, spokeswoman for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife.

“It is pretty much a needle in a haystack. Mike was purely lucky," she said. “He found one of the needles in the haystack."

The bright red of the sockeye made it stand out from the darker colored kokanee, Gauvin said. After spooking the fish when he first saw it, Gauvin returned a couple of hours of later and approached the riverside slowly. Crouching behind a bush he watched the fish and then dipped a waterproof camera into the river, capturing still and video images of the fish.

Now Gauvin said he wants to catch a glimpse of another fish.

“... (T)he next one I really want to see is chinook, spawning in the Metolius," he said. “Keeping my eyes peeled for that."

— Reporter: 541-617-7812, ddarling@bendbulletin.com

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