May 28, 2011 - Bend Bulletin - A long journey for salmon — and aquatic biologists

May 31, 2011

May 28, 2011 - Bend Bulletin - A long journey for salmon — and aquatic biologists

A long journey for salmon — and aquatic biologists

By Kate Ramsayer / The Bulletin
Published: May 28. 2011 4:00AM PST

Jim Bartlett, fish passage biologist with Portland General Electric, holds the first adult spring chinook that returned to the Pelton Round Butte dam complex, after rearing in Upper Deschutes tributaries. The salmon was probably released into the Metolius River as a fry, was trapped and trucked around the dam, migrated to the Pacific, and returned this spring to the Deschutes River. It is part of a large effort to bring back runs of salmon and steelhead to the basin.

A 4-year-old spring chinook has sent ripples of excitement through Central Oregon’s community of fish biologists.

The salmon is the first to return to the Pelton Round Butte dam complex, the result of a decade-long, more than $100 million effort to restore runs of salmon and steelhead in the Upper Deschutes basin.

“It’s a beautiful fish,” said Brett Hodgson, Deschutes district fish biologist with the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. “Looking at the pictures, it appears to be about a 15-pound male, in very good condition.”

Jim Bartlett, a fish passage biologist with Portland General Electric, got the news Wednesday morning that one of the fish entering a trap had its right maxillary bone clipped — a unique marker indicating that as a young fry it swam in Upper Deschutes tributaries.

Bartlett immediately grabbed his waders, found a big net, and jumped into the holding pond where the inaugural spring chinook was swimming with regular hatchery fish.

“I sorted through the 300 fish so I could find him, and pulled him out,” Bartlett said. “We’ve been working on this for a long time. It’s pretty exciting.”

He took pictures of the fish, naming him “Lucky” and “Lone Ranger,” since “it was the first one that made the gauntlet.”

And he sent out an e-mail to others involved in the effort to return fish runs, joking that the first fish likes smooth, open waters and anchovies, but dislikes sea lions and barbecues.

Ryan Houston, executive director of the Upper Deschutes Watershed Council, said it was fun to open the e-mail and see a full-sized adult that had left the Upper Deschutes, made it down the Columbia River, swum around in the Pacific and then returned safely. The Bend-based watershed council has restored habitat along creeks and streams to help create healthy spawning and rearing areas for salmon and steelhead.

“It’s symbolic more than anything else, but it’s exciting,” Houston said. “Because 10 years ago this whole idea was just a concept, and a lot of people thought it was crazy and it wouldn’t work. But it’s at least worked once.”

The effort to return salmon and steelhead to the Upper Deschutes and Crooked River basins started around 1995, when PGE and the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs had to renew the federal license to operate the dams. One condition of the relicensing was to develop a way to get salmon and steelhead safely around the three dams in the Pelton Round Butte complex. The dams had been blocking the migration route of runs since the dams were constructed in the 1950s and ’60s.

So engineers drew up plans for a fish passage facility that would draw in water and fish from Lake Billy Chinook, sort them, and allow migrating salmon and steelhead to be trucked around the dam complex. Construction started in 2007, but was set back two years later, when the 270-foot tower connecting the fish passage structure with the bottom of the reservoir snapped, sections of it sinking to the floor of Lake Billy Chinook. Crews fished the pieces out, rebuilt the tower and in December 2009 the structure was up and running at Round Butte Dam.

The spring chinook caught last week probably spawned at Round Butte Hatchery in September 2007, said Don Ratliff, senior aquatic biologist with PGE.

It was one of the thousands of chinook that biologists and volunteers released into tributaries including the Metolius River in February 2008, and then in the spring of 2009 started to migrate down to Lake Billy Chinook.

Because the tower had broken at that point, PGE crews used traps to catch about 700 of the migrating fish and truck them around the dam. All of them had their right maxillary bone, or upper jaw near the hinge, clipped to identify them if they return. Most of them were outfitted with a tag inserted into their bellies that can be scanned by monitoring devices to identify where the fish came from — although the chinook that returned last week did not.

The first chinook also could have been one of the test fish that biologists used in trial runs to ensure the fish passage facility worked, before it was completely operational, Bartlett said. Or, it could have been one of the 240 or so fish that made it through the facility shortly after it was finished and up and running in December 2009.

“Any way you look at it, it’s really a cool scenario,” he said.

Ratliff added that because the test fish were released after the typical migration period, and the December fish were early migrants from the 2010 batch, it’s most likely that the chinook was released in the Metolius and caught in a trap.

And more fish could be on their way — three chinook that grew up in the Metolius and were trucked around the dams in 2009 were identified by an automated tag reader, as they swam up the Bonneville Dam fish ladder in May. Those could reach the Pelton fish trap in the next several weeks, Ratliff said.

No one really expected to get an adult fish back this early, said Hodgson, with the Department of Fish and Wildlife.

“There were not a lot of fish that were transported to the lower river in 2009, and to get one of them back, it’s pretty exciting.”

The adult chinook is now in a holding tank at Round Butte Hatchery, where it’s tagged with a special marker. Once it matures and is ready to spawn, biologists will use its sperm to fertilize eggs so that the next generation of chinook will get some of the genes that allowed the fish to make it to the ocean and back.

“The fact that he made it through the tributaries and was released into the lower river and came back — its genetic material is uniquely valuable,” Hodgson said.

After the chinook spawns, it will die just like fish would do in the wild. Dead fish from the hatchery are typically dropped in a pit, some scavenged by coyotes or other animals.

But it’s exciting and surprising to get a fish back already, said Bobby Brunoe, natural resources general manager with the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs.

“It kind of caught me off-guard a little bit, but this is cool, it’s amazing,” he said.

The fish not only survived predators and ocean conditions, but made it through all the fishermen out along the Columbia and Lower Deschutes, Brunoe said, joking that it slipped by him this weekend as well.

And even though it’s only one fish for now, it’s a good sign and an indication that the effort seems to be on track, he said.

“Hopefully there’s a lot more than just the one,” Brunoe said.

Kate Ramsayer can be reached at 541-617-7811 or at

Published Daily in Bend Oregon by Western Communications, Inc. © 2010

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