March 26, 2001 11:00 pm

By Dick Mason

Observer Staff Writer

The La Grande Salvation Army is offering a new entre to low-income families this spring steelhead.

Surplus hatchery steelhead are being donated to the La Grande Salvation Army by the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. The fish are distributed by the Salvation Army to families that need food.

We are so grateful. This is a blessing for us, said Capt. Greg Moody of the Salvation Army.

He said that the organization has a good supply of canned food but has a shortage of fresh meat products.

The ODFW started providing the fish a week ago. The fish are from the ODFWs Big Canyon Hatchery on the Wallowa River near Minam. A good return of steelhead has provided the department with more steelhead than it needs for spawning. The hatchery has a surplus of adult steelhead, said Scott Patterson, the ODFWs Northeast Oregon hatchery coordinator.

The ODFW brought 54 steelhead to the Salvation Army last week and 52 on Monday.

Capt. Orpha Moody of the Salvation Army said the steelhead has proven very popular. In the past week many of the 54 fish received were given out to families.

The ODFW will continue to give surplus steelhead to the Salvation Army for about a month. After this no fish will be provided because the quality of the flesh of returning steelhead will be poor, Patterson said.

The condition of steelhead deteriorates later in the spawning season partly because their immune systems shut down. Steelhead spawn between late March and late May.

Not all Big Canyon Hatchery surplus steelhead have been given to the La Grande Salvation Army. Some 176 were planted in Union and Wallowa county ponds. In Union County the steelhead were planted in an R.D. Mac pond near Island City, at ponds at the Ladd Marsh Wildlife Area and at Roulet Pond. In Wallowa County steelhead were planted at the Marr and Wallowa wildlife ponds. Anyone with a regular fishing license can take steelhead in the above ponds. Steelhead tags are not needed.

The ODFWs surplus Big Canyon steelhead were not returned to rivers for two reasons:

(1) If released at the hatchery, the fish would swim upstream, where they would interfere with the spawning of wild steelhead, Patterson said. This would create problems since wild steelhead are protected under the Endangered Species Act and Gov. John Kitzhabers Oregon Plan.

Under the plan, steps must be taken to prevent hatchery steelhead from spawning with wild


(2) If the steelhead were transported downstream from the Big Canyon Hatchery and released far from wild fish, few anglers would catch them as the steelhead would rush back to the hatchery. In the past, the steelhead have covered up to 50 miles in two days swimming back to the hatchery.