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Fishing for answers, anglers question effects of drawdown

By Kristy Tallman

Springtime may seem a lifetime away here in January, however to those who fish it’s just a minute away. The fishermen in the area have their curiosity up as was evident this week on social media.

It started with a post inquiring as to if there had been a mass die-off at the South Santiam Fish Hatchery, which ended up being a rumor gone wrong. According to Nick Gilbo, Fish & Wildlife technician at the hatchery, there has not been any die-offs to date since October 2023 when the community witnessed the mass die-off of Kokanee from the deep drawdown.

Gilbo has worked at the South Santiam Fish Hatchery for nearly 24 years. His work around the hatchery consists of raising spring Chinook, summer steelhead and rainbow trout. They also work spring Chinook, summer steelhead and winter steelhead at the traps.

There was “a severely increased load of parasites” with the summer steelhead juveniles due to the mud and silt, Gilbo said.

The Foster Dam towers over the South Santiam Fish Hatchery in Sweet Home.

“All that water being flushed out to a level that’s never been seen before and you’re stirring things up in the water column and you’re shoving more bugs, more mud, more stuff down and it’s never been seen before. Well it didn’t hurt the Chinook, at all, as we can see, but it did really load the steelhead up full of parasites,” he said.

Gilbo said the parasitic problem wouldn’t be an issue for those fishing for the steelhead, though, as the parasites have been taken care of.

“The pathologist was just here yesterday,” he said. “She said they are back to normal load.”

Many folks have been wondering if the winter Chinook returned in plenty this year or if their populations had been affected by the drawdown. Gilbo stated this year and last they had above average returns on the Chinook.

They should know, as they have to truck these fish up the mountain.

“We collect them at the trap, we count them, we sex them, put equal number of males and females, tag them with numbers, take some genetic samples and then we truck them up to either Quartzville or the Middle Fork,” Gilbo explained.

Other folks were concerned about the silt running through the tanks and filtration systems down at the hatchery. Gilbo conceded things were pretty bad previously, but the water has been improving.

“The silt doesn’t bother the fish or the filtration system,” he said. “The silt is really light and fine, it just flows in and flows out no problem.”

He further stated the fish would be minimally impacted by the silt due to these same reasons. “It’s not good on their gills necessarily but it’s really light and fluffy so it doesn’t, so far as we know, it doesn’t have a negative impact on the fish that we’ve seen.”

He did state that the fish do have trouble finding their food due to the silt, which would cause them not to eat; however, staff have since adjusted their feeding habits to accommodate for the disruption. Instead of feeding them once, they now feed them several times lightly so it’s easier for the fish to find their food.

The South Santiam Fish Hatchery is open for daily tours.

Bass and sunfish seemed to be of great curiosity for anglers wondering how the drawdown may have affected other species of fish not so often talked about, since they are not native to Oregon. According to Gilbo, regardless of the species folks are inquiring about, there will be no answers until the seasons begin and the fishing begins.

“They’re going to have to find out,” he said. “You’re going to have to wait for Green Peter to fill back up, and then clear up so people can go fishing and they’re going to be the ones that find out in a hurry. If they want to go back to their favorite spots, yeah they’re the ones who’s going to find out and let the rest of us know.”

Gilbo explained he wished he had more answers to some of the questions presented.

“This is new to us, new to Oregon,” he said. “It’s never been done before, so everything is a wait-and-see.”

He believes the silt will settle in time for summer recreation and says the process has made quite a bit of progress.

“It’s already cleaned up considerably from what it was here. I think it should be fine. It’s made quite a bit of progress.”

Currently this is an expected three-year study. However, due to current litigation in progress, it’s uncertain whether the schedule will be adhered to or if it will occur at all.

When asked further about the native cutthroat trout, bass in the lower river and chub populations, he said he doesn’t know.

“Nobody knows,” Gilbo said. “This is new to everyone. It’s going to take the researchers to bring us that information.”

Due to the current state of the water and the continued uncertainty folks have regarding the drawdown, many wondered if the salmon and juvenile steelhead would continue to be released by the hatchery. According to Gilbo, since the water started being raised they have let 300,000 salmon and steelhead go in November, 300,000 will be released in February, and another 468,000 go in March.

“We have to wait for them to get to size before they can be let go.”

The population of fish in general, according to Gilbo, is a rollercoaster by nature.

“Each year is a gamble just like fishing,” he said. “Sometimes you get a good catch while others you catch nothing. In a controlled environment things are predictable, but out in the wild nature decides more often than not; it’s a true rollercoaster.”

Many questions presented to Gilbo were deferred to the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW) or the Army Corp of Engineers for further comment. At the time of press, Lebanon Local had spoken with ODFW, but were asked to submit questions in writing.

The South Santiam Fish Hatchery is open to the public for self-guided tours Monday through Sunday from 7:30 a.m. to dusk, and guided tours for groups from 7:30 a.m. to 4:20 p.m.