ENTERPRISE — There’s more going on than meets the eye at Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife’s Wallowa Fish Hatchery just beyond the city limits of Enterprise.
Steelhead are captured as they travel up Spring Creek into the Wallowa Hatchery trap. Seasonal hatchery employees Bud Hook and Pat Horley harvest the fish in the trap under the eye of Hatchery Manager Ron Harrod. - Photos by Ron Osterloh
The constant rushing of the pure, natural spring water that feeds hatchery operations accompanies the work of Hatchery Manager Ron Harrod and his crew. Spawning, harvesting, shipping, rearing and monitoring Wallowa County’s steelhead resource is a huge undertaking.
For three months in early spring they harvest steelhead making their way back from the ocean down the Grande Ronde, into the Wallowa River, to Spring Creek and into the hatchery traps. Harvesting is done at three sites. On Monday the crew works the trap at Little Sheep Creek on the Imnaha River. Tuesday they carry out the spawning process there. On Wednesdays they work the trap and spawn at the Wallowa Hatchery in Enterprise. On Thursdays, they travel back to Little Sheep Creek and then on Friday the crew works the adult fish trap at the Big Canyon Hatchery near Minam.
These adult fish have traveled 800 miles, the farthest of any steelhead in Oregon. The number of fish returning this year is the largest on record.
The hatchery has produced in excess of 8,000 adult fish that can’t be released into the river to spawn with wild species. As a result, the anglers’ bag limit has increased to five and Harrod is urging fishermen to keep and utilize the fish they catch. Hatchery fish all have their adipose fins clipped. If anglers catch a steelhead that is not clipped, they must release it back into the wild.
The hatchery donates much of the harvested fish to local and regional food banks and sponsors seminars to teach anglers how to prepare the fish to eat and to preserve them by drying or smoking.
“It’s great to learn how to catch these steelhead, but we are also showing people how to utilize this resource,” says Harrod.
The fish are very edible even after their long journey from the ocean. The pink color of the flesh is an indicator of their body fat, which is diminished as they make their way back to where they were spawned.
Fisheries Technician Debbie Eddy from La Grande gathers valuable information from the harvested fish. She scans the carcasses for implanted electronic wire tags and takes scale samples that can be read under a microscope like the rings of a tree. Age of the fish, its years in salt water and fresh water and the time in which it entered salt water can all be detected from the samples. This information is entered and analyzed to track survival rates, incidence of disease or injury and return times.
Some of the fish that are caught at the hatchery are sent to stock local fishing ponds. Adult fish are preserved for spawning, but only 500 are needed to spawn. Two hundred fifty females can produce 1.3 million eggs annually, Harrod says.
Managing this reproduction process is another operation carried out at the Wallowa Hatchery. Eggs from females and sperm from males are combined for fertilization. The eggs are incubated for three to four weeks until they reach the “eyed stage.’’ This is a hardy and viable stage in the development of the fish and they are able to be handled and shipped with little risk for about 48 hours before the backbone begins to develop and they become fragile.
During this time the trays, or baskets, of 5,000 to 10,000 fertilized eggs are stored and carefully monitored in a
climate-controlled incubation room where pathogen-free spring water flows through the trays, closely emulating natural stream bed conditions. The water is approximately 44 to 52 degrees and flows out of the ground at the hatchery site at 100 gallons a minute.
Eggs at the eyed stage are shipped to a larger fish hatchery in Irrigon. More space facilitates the nurturing of the eggs to the smolt stage when they are shipped back to the Wallowa Hatchery. Here they are monitored and nurtured until ready for release.
Harrod says ODFW has tailored this production program to avoid conflict with the wild population of fish. The risk of overwhelming a small population of wild fish and destroying a strain of steelhead that is hundreds of years old is not taken lightly by hatchery staff.
“We don’t want to conflict with natural processes. We have a strict management philosophy. That is why we don’t release all of these fish to spawn. We function under stringent guidelines that control the number of smolts we produce and release,” Harrod says.
One of Harrod’s goals when he was hired at this facility was to bring back the rainbow trout program. Sixty thousand rainbow trout, 15,000 in each of the hatchery’s four ponds, are now raised at the hatchery in Enterprise for release into Wallowa County lakes and ponds. Out of that number, 45,000 go into Wallowa Lake annually to support the fishing and tourist industry.
The hatchery receives the trout at 3 to 4 inches in October and raises them through the winter for release in spring and summer when they are 9 to 10 inches long. Three thousand trout are held for two years to be harvested as trophy-sized fish. They are released every spring and summer at about 14 to 16 inches in length.
The Wallowa Hatchery also runs an early rearing for captive spring Chinook salmon program for juvenile fish that are caught in the Lostine River, Upper Grande Ronde and Catherine Creek. These fish are kept at Wallowa Hatchery until they are mature enough to spawn.
Wallowa Hatchery's Assistant Manager Chad Aschenbrenner deposits a steelhead selected for release to a local fishing pond into a transport vehicle.
Each fish has an individual tag. This passive integrated transponder (PIT) is a small device injected into the fish to monitor migratory habits.The PIT tag can be automatically detected and decoded in natural habitat, eliminating the necessity to sacrifice, anesthetize or handle fish during data collection.
“Some we receive as eggs that were spawned at the Looking Glass Hatchery. We are the caretakers of these fish; they are intensely monitored. Any fish that dies is taken to a lab in La Grande to be disease tested. The early rearing tanks are supplied with the pathogen-free spring water that flows continuously here at the hatchery,” Harrod says.
The building where the tanks are situated was constructed in the early 1920s but has been modified to prevent contamination of the tanks. An iodine boot bath is required for anyone entering the early rearing area, and tanks are surrounded by splash guards to prevent contamination of tanks by splashing during feeding.
This phase of the program is winding down now, according to Harrod, and the fish will be transported to Bonneville Hatchery in May. Harrod says the facility here will be maintained as a safety net program if needed in the future.
Fisheries technician Debra Eddy of La Grande mounts scale samples from harvested steelhead. The scales, read under a microscope like the rings of a tree, tell the story of the steelhead's journey to the sea and back.
The Wallowa Hatchery is staffed 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Duties are shared among Harrod; Chad Aschenbrenner of Enterprise, the assistant hatchery manager; and five seasonal employees including Patrick Horley of Maryland, Bud Hook from Elgin, Steve Deal from Wallowa, Chuck Stelling of
La Grande and Sue Bonneau of Joseph.
Water levels and temperature, oxygen levels and room temperatures are all monitored continuously. If the water stops or temperatures drop and ice forms on the ponds, the fish could die. Aschenbrenner and Harrod both have alarms in their residences, which are near the hatchery plant. Other staff is housed on site.
Harrod has been in Wallowa County for two years. He came from the Clackamas Hatchery in Estacada. He started at the Looking Glass Hatchery in Union County right out of Mount Hood Community College, where nearly 80 percent of the state’s fisheries technicians are trained. He has worked at every hatchery in Eastern Oregon with many programs and species of fish.
Wallowa Hatchery manager Ron Harrod explains how the pure on-site spring water flows through baskets of fertilized eggs, creating natural streambed conditions for the incubation of the eggs.
Harrod was raised in North Powder. He says he is happy to be back in Eastern Oregon after his experience living and working in Estacada.
In addition to his commitment to the operations of the hatchery, Harrod encourages school and community groups to learn more about the local hatchery by scheduling tours or presentations.
He wants people to know how this valuable Wallowa County resource is produced and managed.
“Wallowa Lake is the most popular coldwater lake fishery in Northeast Oregon,’’ he says. “One of our primary goals is to increase the quality and quantity of fisheries in Oregon.”