Native Trout Enthusiasts vs. a Bureaucratic view: a Dichotomy

It was decades ago, when much younger and during a time that life seemed simple, that circumstances brought me from SE Idaho westward, to the Willamette Valley.

Just how taken for granted were the large trout —both bows and cutts— that were just minutes from home, was yet to be fully realized.  …From spring through fall these trout were ever eager to consider any offering that came their way — and explode with fight when a hook found their jaw to set them into a frenzy.

Upon arrival in Oregon, the assumption was that the environment and fishing would be much like the narrow deep cutouts and pristine ripples of the hardly fished basin and mountain streams of my native Idaho home.  Yet things could hardly have been more different.  …And being so naïve — it would take a few years for true reality to sink in.

A work acquaintance suggested that we fish a nearby coastal river for salmon, mostly for the sport of it, since it was late in the season and they’d likely be dark…  Being ever up for the prospect of some fishing, we headed to the nearby stream, and found our way to a se-cluded section of the river, anticipating some 20+ lb Chinook as our ‘exercise’ for the day.

Perhaps it was indeed a bit late in the season…  The salmon, obscured by the murky water (yet occasionally rolling to taunt us), showed absolutely no interest in our artificial lures.

As we diligently worked along the stream, searching for a willing participant to take our offerings, we adventured to an upper bend in the river — where a small creek, flowing cold and clear from the uncut timber above, emptied into the opposite side.

The prospect of a trout being located at such a location seemed logical to me, so my rather gaudy attractant was quickly flipped into the ripple, and then retrieved with jerky upward movements — to keep it free of the mostly shallow bottom.

The water was clear where the creek flowed into the river — the river itself a murky green (which at the present time was way better than the muddy ooze that this river would become after strong rain).  Intensive logging along the river system, and livestock and agriculture dominating near its headwaters, made this river ever so slow to finally clear.

As my streaming hook breached into the murky river water, the line suddenly stopped.  Reflexively I lifted the rod — expecting that the bottom had found my hook and this would become another offering that the river rocks would claim and keep… But the rod began to sway with the movement of tail and body on the other end of the line — and after a few tense moments of time to play the fish — a very large ‘trout’ was now safely in my net . . .

I called my fishin’ pal over to see this ‘trout’ before I turned it loose…  (After all, trout season was over and it was salmon that we were after!)

It was a few years later that I realized that this ‘trout,’ was really a steelhead, and that most likely we could have invited him home for dinner….  But then, just as well, as this river had been going through difficult times, and the once robust steelhead runs were now essentially a thing of the past.

Fast forward a decade or so, and the State was now in the process of introducing hatchery steelhead stock into this river, hoping to revive steelhead fishing in this then nearly dead river system — at least so far as steelhead were concerned.  …During this same timeframe, the Federal Forest Service undertook a large-scale project to improve habitat, and natural fish-migration passage, on the upper river.

During this phase, a small field office for ODFW was set-up in the small coastal town at the mouth of this river, and, as circumstances permitted, I found myself ‘calling on’ the ODFW office for business and for conversational purposes.

The biologist assigned the task of implementing introduction of hatchery steelhead, and facilitating the ongoing maintenance of the project for the region, seemed to be a friendly sort — willing to freely chat about the process and progress of the plan.

During our chat, I mentioned the steelhead I’d caught in the upper river, and he laughed a bit, and said “yeah, they used to be up there.”  As we continued, I proposed the thought of releasing smolt — or having hatchery boxes — in the upper river, or perhaps even on the upper tributaries that could harbor spawning steelhead.

Seemingly shocked, he blurted “we’re not going to re-introduce steelhead into all 57 river miles.”  (The site of the current hatchery creek was about twenty miles upstream from the mouth, and as it often is, when a hatchery creek is set-up off-river, it was closed to fishing.)

He went on to say that if he had his way, he’d use a certain creek for the hatchery — and as I thought about it, I said “that creek flows into tide water.”  He simply smiled, and said “that’s right.”

For what its worth; steelhead fishing on this river, and its main sister tributary, has been augmented with hatchery stock, and sportsmen interest in the river has been kept “alive.”

Fast forward again, a decade or so, and the Northwest Steelheaders gained permission to set-up a hatchery into the system.  This project, staffed by volunteers, has built a hatchery on one of the uppermost creeks in the uppermost headwaters of the river.

Though the return ratio has not been as high here, as for the State sponsored hatchery, it does seem that the fish that return to the headwaters are larger than the State averages, and with an earlier seasonal return timeframe for their journey back into the river system.

Since fishermen occasionally now land non-fin clipped steelhead, it seems fair to conclude that some steelhead with the longer migration course have turned into the more pristine creeks that empty into the river along the way; such that steelhead may have been aided in their return or restoration to upper reaches that they’d previously disappeared from.

(Note:  After some years the State had realized that they needed to utilize native stock for introduction into this system, as the timing of the run was differentiated by introduction of stock from other coastal systems.  My understanding is that they’ve utilized progeny from this river system for hatchery stock, now for many years.)

Not really much of a moral to the story, except that sometimes the perceptions or primary objectives of those involved within our governmental departments do not necessarily fully align with native salmonid enthusiasts, or those who really desire restoration of the natural order as much as possible.  (Of course, there are also many folk in the public — who don’t align with native salmonid enthusiasts; mostly wanting just size or volume for their catch.)

It is, no doubt, a difficult job — and the individuals involved within these agencies have a difficult task in attempting to keep the overall public as happy as possible.

It therefore is not too surprising that the proposal for catch-and-release, or the alternative for selective retention, of trout in ***** Creek (in previous posts) was rejected by ODFW.

Embedded below is a summary of the response from ODFW in the public process:

59P: Catch-and-Release for ***** Creek – Dave Kortum – Rejected


ODFW/OSP Public Proposal Review Form

2012 Public Process for Development of the 2013 Oregon Sport Fishing Regulations


Proposal 59P: Dave Kortum; ***** Creek – Catch and Release fishing only.

  • Catch and release fishing, with barbless flies or lures only

Reviewer(s): Shannon Hurn and Ray Perkins

Section 1.  Does the proposal adequately address the public proposal development criteria?  

  1. Actions intended to change fishing opportunities. Current: Two Trout Per Day, Two Daily Limits in Possession.  59-P Proposes: Catch and Release Fishing, with Barbless Flies or Lures Only.

B. Actions intended to conserve populations   Reduce retention of fish resembling extinct subspecies Lahontan cutthroat trout alvordensis.

Section 2.  Did the project sponsor contact ODFW prior to submitting the proposal?  No, email sent to S. Hurn containing proposal on 2/17/2012.

(Note: the email of the 17th did say: “We look forward to hearing from you and your input regarding this proposal as part of the 5-Step Public Process.” An auto-reply indicated that S. Hurn was out ’till the end of the week, so an email was forwarded to R. Messmer in order to assure making the proposal deadline.  Over a multiple year time span, numerous exchanges regarding the presence of Alvord phenotypes in ***** Creek have occurred.)

Section 3.  ODFW/OSP review criteria and public proposal criteria. 

New ODFW Review Criteria:

  1. Is the proposal consistent with ODFW fish management and conservation policies and rules?  No fish management plan for this watershed.
  2. Is the proposal consistent with federal fish management plans and mandates?  N/A
  3. Is the proposal consistent with statutory mandates and within ODFW’s rule-making authority? Yes
  4. Is the proposal based on an establish need? No documented evidence of translocation of subspecies, LCT alvodensis stocked in ***** Creek. Willow-Whitehorse Lahontan cutthroat trout (1969, 1973, 1976, and 1979) and rainbow trout (1925, 1931, 1963, 1964, and 1969) were stocked in this creek previously by the Department. ***** Creek is currently believed to have originally been a redband trout stream connected to Catlow Lake. There are other populations of alvordensis hybrids in the Alvord Basin that display this phenotype.

(Note: it is true that the Oregon Native Fish Status Report (vol. 2) “considers redband trout to be the native salmonid species in ***** Creek until genetic studies and other research can clarify the zoological history of the creek.”  It should also be noted that the report states that “Distribution of redband trout in ***** Creek is undetermined.  Redband trout were not detected during surveys in 1992 (six sites) and 1995 (five sites) (ODFW, Aquatic Inventory Project, unpublished data).  (the) Stream reaches of ***** Creek were classified as absent – based on opinion by local biologists (Flitcroft and Dambacher 2001). However, anecdotal information suggests native redband trout are present in ***** Creek, and if so, then distribution is likely limited and highly fragmented.”  Regarding redbands; the ‘percent occupied’ in ***** Creek is listed as 0.0%

It appears other assessments may have been attempted in 1997 and 1999 — and we can offer some confirmation that samples electro-shocked in 2008 and 2010 reflected primary cutthroat heritage, and DNA analysis of the 2008 samples were not seen to be appreciably different from Lahontan cutthroat trout — based on analysis at 20 nuclear microsatellites.

We’re not sure what “anecdotal info” suggests redband trout are present in ***** Creek, but the same report states that “Hatchery rainbow trout were stocked regularly in Rock Creek between 1960 and 1979, and in ***** Creek during the 1960s (ODFW, historical stocking records).”  And as Dr. Behnke has stated “Stocking records of ODFW indicate that Lahontan cutthroat trout O. c. henshawi from Willow Creek of the Whitehorse (or Coyote Lake) Basin were released in ***** Creek in 1957, followed by more Lahontan cutthroat (probably of Heenan Lake, California origin) in 1969, 1973, 1976, and 1978. Rainbow trout were stocked in ***** Creek in 1957, 1962, 1963, 1964, and 1969.” (Link)

Of many Oregon State Game Commission, Fisheries Division, Annual Reports that we’ve been able to peruse, we’ve seen stockings in other creeks in 1925 and 1933; but not ***** Creek: so we’ve asked for clarification or verification from the commenting biologists.)

Tissue samples have been collected and sent to lab for analysis.  No results at this time.

  1. E.     Is the proposal consistent with biologically sound principles and biologically feasible?

Further research is needed to confirm the presence of alvordensis genes; however if the correctly spotted fish contain alvordensis ancestry, they are likely to be hybridized; as are fish in several streams in the Alvord Basin that contained the original population.  The Alvord Basin streams do not have special angling regulations to protect the LCT x rainbow hybrids.  If a small population of a thought to be extinct cutthroat trout still exists should we not close the stream to all angling?

  1. Is the proposal supported by affected citizens and addresses an established social need?  I have received one email in support of the proposal. Copied as attachment.
  2. Easily understood with clearly defined limits or boundaries? Yes
  3. Is the proposal enforceable? Yes
  4. Regulation Context. This proposal would add one additional line to the Special Regulation section of SE.

Section 4. Staff Recommendation

Recommend to reject, drop from further consideration:

Basis for proposal rejection.   Which criteria did the proposal fail to meet? 

The area of concern is almost entirely managed on **** ******** National Wildlife Refuge; if USFWS has concerns about an extinct trout on their refuge they have the ability to close the stream.  Changing the bag limit from two-per-day to catch-and-release won’t reduce hooking mortality.  Few fishermen access this area, those that do are mostly seeking solitude and the opportunity to catch-and-release a desert fish; or have heard of the “extinct” trout reappearing and wish to capture and photograph their own specimen.

The stream habitat; meadow structure, slow-moving water, narrow, with deep pools allows for high catch rates of 4 to 12” trout.  Most are believed to be naturally reproducing hybrids from the earlier cutthroat trout and rainbow stockings.  If protection is warranted on a few intermingled “pure” LCT alvordensis remaining in Guano Creek from undocumented stocking of the late 1800’s a closure would be a better recommendation.

The alternate proposal to allow retention based on “spotting” pattern is not supported. This would be too complex, confusing to anglers and difficult to enforce.

Section 5. Final Review outcome, Fish Division. Rejected, dropped from further consideration.

The comments state that “There are other populations of alvordensis hybrids in the Alvord Basin that display this phenotype.”  And they state “…if the correctly spotted fish contain alvordensis ancestry, they are likely to be hybridized; as are fish in several streams in the Alvord Basin that contained the original population.  The Alvord Basin streams do not have special angling regulations to protect the LCT x rainbow hybrids.”

(emphasis ours) We’ve asked for clarification regard this part of the commentary. We don’t doubt that the east-side Steens’ Mountain streams have hybrid alvordensis phenotypes — nor do we doubt that Denio and Van Horn Creeks may have the like as does Virgin Cr. NV. Yet these streams are all closed to fishing, and the commentary is that several streams do not have any special regulations to protect the Alvord phenotypes.  We’d love to know the names of the several streams that are referenced here as open Alvord phenotype streams!

If the implication in the response includes the idea that the Alvord phenotype still exists in Trout Creek—having caught quite a range of trout in the system—from the lowest canyon, to the headwaters; we’ve yet to see any phenotypes that are remotely illustrative in the same way the Alvord phenotypes from ***** Creek are.  (We often visit Trout Creek as a matter of course while were in that region.  We would love to find Alvord phenotypes there that are even close to those in ***** Creek; but we haven’t — over many years of fishing.)

Typical Trout Creek Redband

This trout is typical of the many trout that we’ve caught in Trout Creek.

Trout Creek Upper Sherman Field

This trout was caught near Trout Creek’s headwaters – Sherman Field.

Vaguely Alvordish Pattern - too many spots

This specimen vaguely reflects the Alvord spotting pattern; way too many spots.

Perhaps there’s a section or tributary of Trout Creek that, like Virgin Creek, retains a few relict trout. Or, perhaps the reference to “other streams in the Alvord Basin” is instructive. If there are indeed “other populations of alvordensis hybrids in the Alvord Basin that display this phenotype” — we all would love to know for sure where indeed to find them!!!

In reality, for those of us who are native trout enthusiasts, it is plainly apparent that if the associated agencies and technicians that have had access and opportunity to work with the trout and their DNA had the same concern that we sharethis would have been long ago resolved; with unique aspects of the genetic composition of Alvord cutthroat trout, by now, well identified – and verification of the ***** Creek Alvord phenotypes equally identified…

And, if any DNA match were identified, the prospect of preserving the phenotype would have by now been accomplished (at the very least in the sense of placing phenotypes into a safe and secure location for propagation of a future population — that would allow future generations to see and appreciate the outward beauty of a distinct and rare cutthroat trout whose likeness has survived to this day against all odds).

This is all that Dr. Behnke asked when the Alvord phenotype was identified in ***** Creek, and confirmation of his surmising in Ivory-Billed Trout rose to the surface; summer 2006. But, perhaps, that is what differentiates Dr. Behnke from many other administrators and biologists — that he deeply cares about the natural order, native trout species, and that he truly comprehends that “the costs of extinction far outweigh the ‘costs’ of preservation.”

For those who predicted that the “no action” “plan” would be the course that the powers that be would take…  You may indeed have been shown to be right.

One thing that remains, for those of us that do venture to ***** Creek, and do have the aptitude to readily identify humboldtensis or henshawi:  There is nothing that stops us from keeping and “frying up in the frying pan:” a few trout that, in other circumstances, would be their own rare and unique species of trout.

Perhaps, if adequate numbers of native trout enthusiasts cull the non-Alvord phenotypes from ***** Creek — there will still be a lasting opportunity for the agencies to actually act.

© KOD 4-2012

***** Creek Alvord Phenotypes

About kortumofdiscovery

Kortum of Discovery (a slight play on Lewis & Clark's Corps of Discovery) is a family team that is Affirming the Exceptional Beauty of Nature, one Adventure at a Time. With a focus toward rare and endangered species in the Great Basin and American west: discoveries, unique methodologies, and many “tall tales to tell” are continually being shared around the campfire!
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5 Responses to Native Trout Enthusiasts vs. a Bureaucratic view: a Dichotomy

  1. Patrick Sievert says:

    Honestly, I think leaving the regulations as they are, and allowing informed fisherman to cull Lahontans is probably the best course of action. In such a small watershed, a few educated fisherman can probably do some actual good. I’m not sure catch and release (or a closure) wouldn’t do more harm than good. C&R would protect the Lahontans that can hybridize with the Alvords just as much as it would the Alvords themselves.

    That’s why I think it’s best to just leave it as it is, and hopefully educated fisherman can do their part. I plan on keeping a couple of non-Alvord’s out of ***** Creek this summer.

    • Joe DiSilvestro, Phoenix,AZ says:

      Knowing where the ODFW stands after 6 years, I would have to concur with Patrick. I think Dave Kortum has great vision/wisdom and continues to communicate his feelings well to interested parties.

  2. Thank you for your comments Patrick and Joe. I have to say (unless ODFW were actively working to preserve and perpetuate Alvord phenotypes from the stream) I wholly agree with your thoughts. It all may be a ‘blessing in disguise’ that ODFW has chosen to not alter the regulations – since there is currently no focus on preserving and perpetuating the Alvord phenotypes.

    Perhaps a new conservation group, “Friends of the Alvords,” can rally native trout enthusiasts to rendezvous on the stream, cull the obvious non-Alvord phenotypes, and then have a fish-fry banquet! (Perhaps an Annual Event)

    Anyway . . . Whatever we do, as native trout enthusiasts, let’s keep the utmost of respect for the rarest of trout species that we encounter in our journeys . . .

    Let’s also remember that the individuals who comprise the bureaus and offices entrusted with the responsibility of caring for native species, while serving the public, are at the same time, human. They are prone toward the same anomaly of human nature as anyone that seeks to preserve the status quo, or take a wait and see approach, especially regarding the weight of such a serious, irreversible, responsibility entrusted to their care.

    • Patrick Sievert says:

      Well, I’ll be there on August 28th & 29th if anyone wants to catch and keep a few non-Alvords with me…

      • Patrick, at least late in August the mosquitoes and gnats should be diminished. I believe that those days are the first two days of Bighorn Sheep season there on the refuge – so a guide or two or a hunter or two may be in the area (though our experience is that they tend to camp at higher elevation and further north).

        If circumstances and time permit, perhaps we’ll be able to catch up with you on the stream… (It’s always nice to meet fellow native trout enthusiasts.) …It’s a bit early to tell, and time is a bit constrained on this end – but we’ll hope for the possibility.

        Either way – may you have the best of success!

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