Abundant steelhead run benefits more than anglers
ENTERPRISE — The banner run of steelhead in Wallowa County rivers this year is a boon to area food banks.
When fish return to the Wallowa Fish Hatchery in Enterprise, much of the surplus will be distributed to food banks in Wallowa, Union and Baker counties.
“The large bulk of the steelhead returning to the hatchery will be in March, April and May,” said Ron Harrod, manager of the Wallowa Fish Hatchery.Fish released from the hatchery are between 10 and 12 inches long, Harrod said. They migrate to the Snake River, to the Columbia and out to the ocean. When they return, they “home’’ back to the area where they originated by the smell of the water.
Steelhead that return to Wallowa County waterways have traveled farther than any other fish in Oregon — more than 800 miles, Harrod said. The fish find their way back to their spawning ground. In the case of hatchery fish they return to the hatchery.
After the adult fish, generally 2 to 3 years old, return to the hatchery they are collected, counted and they spawn for the next generation of hatchery steelhead, Harrod said.
Bill Knox, fisheries biologist for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife in Enterprise, said, “Steelhead fishing is very good, and I’d highly recommend people go out and fish.”
The limit was upped this year to five per day. Knox said steelhead are being caught everywhere they are normally fished from just outside of Enterprise on the Wallowa to the Grande Ronde in Troy and all along the fishable areas of the Imnaha River.
Now that most of the ice is out of the river, the steelhead are more active. In some areas, steelhead are being caught between two and three hours per fish, which is very good.
“Steelhead fishing being what it is, with certain conditions that make them bite, now is a good time to fish,” Knox said. “We want anglers to catch them.”
Some of the surplus fish will stock ponds in the county. Yet with this year’s huge surplus expected at the hatchery, ODFW plans to continue a program that gives fish to the food banks. Hatchery steelhead cannot be released back into the river for fear they will spawn with native fish, so they are killed, iced, put in coolers and distributed to food banks in Enterprise, Wallowa, Union, La Grande and North Powder.
“We’re really excited about giving out this protein source to people who need it,” Harrod said.
He estimates a surplus of 8,000 fish this year.
“That’s a lot of fish to handle,’’ Harrod said. “We have been set up for quite a while to have a good rapport with the area food banks.”
Carolyn Pfeaster of Community Connection in Enterprise said, “Fish are provided to seniors, disabled, and single moms. It’s a good source of protein; a healthy food choice. We would never be able to supply steelhead and salmon without ODF&W.”
The steelhead are delivered in coolers of ice to the food banks and the recipients take home fresh fish.
“Last year when we gave out fish people were so appreciative,” Pfeaster said. “What is really terrific is the fish are being utilized by people who need the food and they aren’t ending up in a landfill.”