To the untrained eye, they’re difficult to spot, but for Ryan Gerstenberger and Blaine Eineichner, the pits and piles of upturned stones are obvious signs of spawning salmon. The water is crystal-clear in the upper reaches of the West Fork, where the two Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs staff are walking slowly upstream looking for signs of active spawning and spawning beds, called redds.
The redds are nests created by female salmon excavating the stream bed to cover and protect freshly fertilized eggs. The females look for ideal-sized stones in ideal-strength current, and when they find what they’re looking for they’ll wear their tails down to stubs making piles that will harbor their eggs safely for the next few months.
In this stretch of the watershed, the peak of spring chinook spawning happens in early September. Led by Gerstenberger, CTWS will spend several weeks surveying 15 reaches, mainly in the upper West Fork — three times each — to observe and document how many spring chinook are present and reproducing.
On this sunny Thursday morning, the two document 16 new redds, 11 carcasses and 15 live fish in a mile-long stretch of river near the confluence of McGee and Elk creeks. The section is high-quality salmon habitat, thanks in part to a restoration project done decades ago by the U.S. Forest Service. Large logs lashed together and placed in the water have created a more natural stream flow, with deep, sheltered pools intermixed with shallow areas of stones and gravel ideal for spawning.
The day’s findings are encouraging, especially considering the recent history of the fish in the Hood River basin.
“Spring chinook went extinct from the Hood River, we think in the 1960s,” said Gerstenberger, CTWS fish biologist. “One of the main reasons the Warm Springs tribe got involved with fisheries monitoring and management in the Hood River was to reintroduce spring chinook and get a naturally reproducing population going here again.”
The project, known as the Hood River Production Program, started in the early 1990s in partnership with the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. It is funded primarily by the Bonneville Power Administration. The goals of the Tribes’ spring chinook program are to restore degraded fish habitat, reintroduced a natural salmon run back into the Hood River basin and provide harvest opportunities for tribal and sport fishers.
“It has taken a while but we are now seeing an increase in the natural production and realizing good harvest opportunities on hatchery salmon for our tribal fishers,” said Chris Brun, Hood River program coordinator for the CTWS .
“By the mid-’90s the first offspring from the program’s smolt releases were coming back to spawn,” Gerstenberger said. “In order to document that they were indeed successfully spawning in the wild, the tribes started going out to count redds in 1997. Some of the main questions we originally wanted to answer with these surveys were; are the reintroduced chinook actually spawning successfully; where are they spawning and how do redd counts relate to abundance or size of the run?”
With live salmon splashing around the river and the occasional but distinct flavor of rotting fish blowing in the wind, the two survey each pool and gravel bed on their way upstream. For accuracy, they work together to verify each redd and to mark it appropriately with ribbon and colored stones so they don’t recount it on a separate survey of the same section.
The less picturesque but no less important task comes when they find a dead chinook carcass. They’ve nicknamed the more-decayed, dehydrated, shriveled ones burritos; of which inspecting and taking scale samples can be a bit tricky. Creamers, on the other hand, aren’t as far along in the natural process but are much more pungent for post processing.
They measure the carcasses, check if they are wild or hatchery, inspect their kidneys for presence of disease, take scale samples and scan them for tracking tags. If a fish has a coded wire tag, detected by a hand-held scanner, its snout must be removed and bagged for further study.
“It’s not glamorous, but you can collect interesting data on a fish by inspecting its carcass,” Gerstenberger said. “For instance, we can determine demographic data, determine a rate of fish that die before spawning and if they had certain diseases.
“After Powerdale Dam was removed, these kinds of surveys could become more important than in the past. We used to get a really accurate count of the salmon run because they all had to go through the fish trap at Powerdale.
“We still want to know how strong or weak a run is, but we can't count them as easily anymore. This study is a measure of abundance because there is a correlation between the number of redds and the number of fish spawning.”
Gerstenberger said findings are showing that numbers of spawning spring chinook in the river are increasing. Both wild and hatchery fish are returning to spawn in higher numbers and are spreading out to spawn in new areas of the river, including the East Fork.
“Logistically, you can’t Johnny Appleseed chinook into the river,” he said. “So we put them in a few places and hope they expand naturally, which they seem to be doing. We’re finding redds in places where there didn’t used to be, which is very encouraging.”
The reintroduction program started years ago with stock from the Deschutes River. The system today uses fish returning up the Hood River, captured in traps, as brood stock. The stock is transported to the Parkdale Fish Hatchery on Red Hill Road, where they are spawned. Half of the 190,000 eggs collected annually remain at the hatchery. The other half is shipped to the Round Butte hatchery in the Deschutes basin to be reared to smolt size.
The fish raised at Round Butte Hatchery must be introduced to Hood River water for several weeks before they can be released into the river. CTWS uses acclimation tanks along the river to “imprint” the fish in hopes that they will know where to go on their way back upstream to spawn.
CTWS is working on a facility at Moving Falls, on the West Fork, that is expected to be completed and online in 2014. When complete, the facility will enable the tribes to rear all of the spring chinook entirely in the Hood River basin.