“Record Chinook Returns”

Photo from The Bulletin.

I have made a few posts about extremely low water in the Crooked River below Prineville and its impact on fish, including spring chinook returns this year. (See here, here, and here.) I was going to wait until the end of July when spring chinook season ends to say more, but the Bulletin ran a story about it today where I am quoted, so here’s more to fill in the gaps.

It is true that about midway through the return year a few more spring chinook have returned to the upper Deschutes Basin than any previous year since the reintroduction program began. Similarly, hatchery spring chinook returning to the Round Butte and Warm Springs hatcheries on the lower Deschutes River have been higher than expected. This has been a welcome surprise for fisheries managers who were concerned about low returns before the season began and another example of how fish can surprise us.

That being said, the total return numbers are still very low and obstacles remain. As of 2 days ago, 59 adult spring chinook have returned to the fish trap just below the Pelton Round Butte dam complex near Madras. These fish have been released into Lake Billy Chinook and are tracked by radio and other tags. About half have made it through the fish ladder at Opal Springs Dam on the Crooked River near LBC, the other half are still in LBC or have most likely moved up the Metolius River.

The fish who have selected the Metolius will find good conditions for spawning. The Crooked River also has good conditions but only for about 6 miles above Opal Springs, to about where the river passes the Crooked River Ranch Golf Course. This section has the benefit of being recharged with ample, cool groundwater. Heading upriver from there, the river becomes very shallow and warm. As a result, only 2 chinook have been verified to have made it past the North Unit Irrigation Diversion just upstream from Smith Rock. Before the dams were built, spring chinook would make it many miles past that into the upper Crooked River and tributaries like McKay and Ochoco Creeks.

I have done a fair amount of scouting the lower reaches of the Crooked River since irrigation season began and am surprised that any fish made it past the Highway 97 bridge, much less past Smith Rocks. There are places in that section where you can walk across and barely get your ankles wet.

So, this is a good news / bad news story. For now, I am hopeful that the fish in the lower most stretches of the Crooked and the Metolius will find mates, spawn, and their progeny will return in the future to better conditions.