Experiencing Lostine fisheries

April 12, 2012 01:15 pm
Last week I toured some of the essential fishery sites on the Lostine River with my fishing poet friend Cameron, quick before the river goes through its spring flush of mountain snow melt.

The first stop was the Nez Perce tribe’s million dollar weir that traps adult Chinook salmon returning to the upper reaches of the Lostine River where they will eventually spawn.

The new fish trap replaced one that had existed for a long time, upstream from the confluence of the Wallowa and Lostine rivers. Fish are trapped, measured, and “worked up” by biologists before being returned to their native waters.

Getting to the confluence directly from the weir is best done by wading. The river’s temperature hovered around 40 degrees, so we opted to drive to an easier spot to check it out.

With a little marsh hopping we got their easily. Cameron had no fly rod, and I could see him twitching a little as I pointed out the Y in the river where fish must decide to advance either left or right. How they choose which river to swim up is largely dependent on where they hatched a few years earlier.

The confluence was the site of a Nez Perce Wallowa Band fishing village way back when. From there one can see the ridgeline where Old Chief Joseph was originally buried in order to always be near his people.

The final stop on the Lostine fisheries tour was the acclimation site six miles upriver from the present-day village of Lostine. Two large tanks full of tiny Chinook, dark little fingerlings wiggling in Lostine River water were awaiting their release.

The salmon fry hatched at the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife hatchery at Lookingglass outside of Elgin and trucked to the acclimation site. There they are “imprinted” or “indexed” by the Lostine so as adults returning from the ocean, they will know to turn right at the confluence of the two rivers and swim upstream to lay their eggs.

A Nez Perce Indian lives part-time at the acclimation site in a camp trailer. He feeds the fish and tends to the tanks until the fry are released. His home is in Lewiston, but he said he loves to come to the river.

“I can breathe here,” he said.

Clearly he was imprinted by the land that was inhabited primarily by his tribe 150 years ago. Camping along the edge of the river where the canyon begins to narrow is his home as much as the other rivers where he works in Idaho within the ancient Nez Perce range.

Our Nez Perce friend said he wished that more young people would work in fisheries. A retired butcher, he deemed working to restore fish populations noble work in pristine surroundings. His heart was full.

The next day Cameron headed to southern Oregon and my father and I headed to Ferguson Ridge to cover Fergi Fest; an end of the ski season event complete with races, costumes, a picnic and live music.

Driving by Mt. Howard, Dad asked me about the condition of the timber. I said I wasn’t quite sure, but said there would be plenty of people at Fergi to ask. An old forester can’t drive by a stressed forest without wondering the cause.

During the afternoon dad talked forestry and skiing with Fergi regulars as I snapped pictures of the day’s events and skied. The old man taught me to ski at Hoodoo in the Cascades when I was 3 years old. Saturday I swapped out his cane for a ski pole in hopes it would help him traverse the snowy/muddy terrain at the base of the hill.

Riding up the T-bar alone, I wished he was along, singing “Delta Dawn” with me as we had when I was a pre-schooler.

I managed to get a photo finish of the women’s race. Leah Johnson won for the second year in a row. Her father was credited as teaching her to ski as a child.

Later my mother joined and my chatty parents engaged in conversations about Lions Club, rural Eastern Oregon living and food. My friend Mellie said she detected some of my sense of humor and interests while talking with my folks.

Apparently their imprint is strong.

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