Monday, October 27, 2008

Steelhead in Hells Canyon

Before reaching their spawning redds in the Upper Salmon River basin, some 900 miles from the Pacific Ocean, wild Chinook salmon and steelhead travel up the Snake River past The Nature Conservancy’s Garden Creek Ranch. Last week Nature Conservancy staff members Steve Grourke and Justin Petty led a field trip to explore the Hells Canyon section of the Snake. The group traveled up river by jet boat and learned about the history of and wildlife native to the canyon.
Bighorn sheep (above) became common sightings as they perched high above the river on rocky canyon cliffs. Mule deer grazed in the grassy hills and a golden eagle worked the cottonwood-lined drainage of Deep Creek.

In addition to learning about the history of the canyon, the group fished for hatchery-raised steelhead. Steelhead are rainbow trout that spend their adult lives in the ocean. They spawn and then live as juvenile fish in freshwater for 1 to 4 years, migrate to the ocean for a similar period of time before returning to freshwater. Hatchery fish are identified by a clipped adipose fin. All steelhead with an intact adipose fin are wild and are released immediately when caught.
The fishing started out slow and with the wrong species being netted. A cat fish was quickly returned to the river as were a number of pike minnows. The best opportunity on the first day to land a steelhead was thwarted by a big rock that fouled up a line. Despite not netting the fish the group’s adrenaline ran high as did anticipation for the next day’s fishing.

Day two was productive with the boat landing three hatchery fish, with one measuring out at 30 inches (above). A number of wild steelhead were hooked and returned to the river. The last day started out slow, with only one fish in the first three hours. But as Captain Butch ordered us to reel in our lines to head back to the ranch, Justin hooked a monster. After considerable struggle and a deft move to thwart the fish from going under the boat, Justin landed the biggest fish of the trip – tape measured at 31 ½ inches--the angler and fish in the photo at the start of this blog.--Submitted by Steve Grourke

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