MEDFORD — State fish biologists are proposing to improve the wild spring chinook salmon spawning habitat in the upper Rogue River, tinkering with hatchery chinook to improve returns and allowing anglers to keep some early-run spring chinook when predicted returns are strong, a new draft plan states.
The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife’s draft plan, which updates its original 2008 plan, proposes no great shifts in management strategies and gives department biologists some kudos for what it states are gains one of the plan’s key elements — rebuilding the genetically pure wild early-run spring chinook that reach the upper Rogue in May and early June.
Early-run wild spring chinook are prized by anglers and tend to be older and larger than the rest of the run. But they are the Rogue run most damaged by the placement and operation of Lost Creek dam, which blocked them from about one-third of their natural spawning habitat beginning in 1977.
While the first 10 years of the plan saw moderate improvements to the early-run returns and a minor shift toward historical peak September spawning, the draft outlines how biologists expect to reach the desired level of 15,000 wild spring chinook annually to the upper Rogue.
“We’re making real progress in returning that early-run component of the spring chinook run,” said Dan Van Dyke, the ODFW’s Rogue District fish biologist. “I think we can get there, to desired status. And that, of course, is what everyone’s been working for.”
But department critics like retired Gold Beach fishing guide Steve Beyerlin consider the draft “a cover up” for past management mistakes, and he wants to see the ODFW jump-start real recovery by using egg incubator boxes in key cold-water tributaries like Big Butte Creek to create more wild-born chinook.
Winter-water releases from Lost Creek Lake are warmer than pre-dam temperatures and accelerate egg incubation so spring chinook hatch earlier in the main-stem Rogue than pre-dam years, a likely contributing factor in survival rates that declined in the post-dam era.
“You can put hatch boxes anywhere to get them out of that toxic (main-stem) environment,” said Beyerlin, of the Curry Sport Fishing Association.
“I think it’s all just a cover-up,” Beyerlin said. “I’m very disappointed in them.”
The draft is now up for public comment, with public meetings planned for 6 p.m. tonight at the Curry County Library in Gold Beach and 5:30 p.m. Monday at the Jackson County Auditorium, on Mosquito Lane off Table Rock Road near Antelope Road in White City. Written comments can be emailed by Dec. 16 to Daniel.J.Vandyke@state.or.us.
One of the key components of the draft plan to anglers is if and when they get to keep wild spring chinook, which dominate the catch despite the release of about 1.7 million spring chinook smolts from Cole Rivers Hatchery.
The ODFW plans to expand harvest of early-run spring chinook in freshwater when returns improve enough to warrant that, based on previous returns and those forecast for that particular year.
For instance, anglers can now keep wild spring chinook beginning June 1 downstream of Fishers Ferry Boat Ramp near Gold Hill, after the vast majority of wild early-run fish have passed that point at River Mile 126. Wild spring chinook also now can be kept beginning July 1 from the mouth to Dodge Bridge near Eagle Point.
The draft states that could open May 21 downstream of Fishers Ferry and June 21 downstream of Dodge Bridge for anglers to kill one wild spring chinook a day and three per year if the average count over the past two years and the current preseason forecast each eclipse 12,000 wild spring chinook.
The current 10-year average return on wild spring chinook is 9,663 adults.
The current plan’s so-called “desired status” is a 10-year running average of 15,000 wild spring chinook reaching the upper Rogue, and the current plan’s goal is to reach that by 2025.
The draft also calls for the state to ask the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, as part of its mitigation for the dam’s building, to fund a gravel survey downstream of the dam and begin replenishing spawning gravels if the data supports it.
Chinook dig egg nests calls redds in main-stem gravel riffles. The dam blocks the normal flow of downstream gravel.
The ODFW will ask the USACE to fund a gravel survey downstream of the dam and initiate replenishing of gravel there by 2019 unless it is not supported by survey data.
The ODFW also will attempt to place spawning gravel along the main-stem Rogue at the McLeod side channel, Trail Creek Riffle, private sites and the Shady Cove side-channel. The gravel would be dispersed naturally downstream in winter high-flow periods.
The ODFW plans to place 1,000 cubic meters of spawning gravel in Big Butte Creek pending funding.
The plan also seeks to continue steps toward improving returns and catches of hatchery fish bred and released from Cole Rivers Hatchery.
The draft suggests looking into the release of fewer but larger spring chinook smolts at Cole Rivers and use lower densities in rearing ponds to potentially improve survival rates.