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Steelhead trout are tough, ocean- going fish and they seemed to affirm that in the way they came slamming through the trap door Saturday into a square elevator of water at the fish hatchery below Lake Sonoma.

“They’re strong and they’re very hardy,” said Danny Garcia, a state Fish and Wildlife technician supervising operations at the Don Clausen Hatchery at Warm Springs Dam.

“That’s probably why they got the name steelhead,” he said, smiling, “but don’t quote me on that.”

The fish, a favorite with anglers, were in the spotlight at the annual Lake Sonoma Steelhead Festival, put on by the Friends of Lake Sonoma.

“It’s about kids, education and the importance of freshwater,” said Richard Thomas, president of the nonprofit group.

He estimated that nearly 6,000 people would attend during the one-day event, a crowd up slightly over last year’s numbers.

“We want to draw attention to Lake Sonoma as a public facility and the hatchery is part of that — our goal is the preservation of steelhead in the Russian River,” Thomas said.

After living in the ocean for several years, the steelhead make their way up the river and into Dry Creek, where a fish ladder leads to the hatchery. The hatchery’s job to manage and boost runs of the once-bountiful fish, which is no longer able to reach spawning streams cut off by the dam.

At the height of the sport fishery, in the 1950s, annual runs brought some 60,000 steelhead into the river, according to the Russian River Wild Steelhead Society.

The backs of migrating adult fish making their way up the river were an annual spectacle for adults and children alike.

“When I was a kid, you could, in Monte Rio, walk across the river. Literally,” Thomas said.

Impacts on fish

Dams in the watershed, urbanization and impacts from logging and agriculture, however, all have taken their toll. Steelhead and chinook salmon are listed as threatened species in the region, though not as imperiled as the rarer coho salmon, classified as endangered.

Unlike salmon, which spawn once, adult steelhead can return multiple times to fresh water throughout their lifetime to reproduce.

Under the hatchery output, the Russian River’s peak steelhead runs these days can reach 10,000 fish, Tim Grogan said. A member of the Wild Steelhead Society, Grogan was at the festival to publicize the group’s work of protecting and restoring Russian River steelhead runs and the watershed.

“The hatchery does a good job of providing sport fishing options for the local anglers,” Grogan said. “But trying to restore the wild fish population, that’s a daunting task.”

Thousands of fish

Every year, from January through mid-April, the hatchery collects 3,000 to 5,000 steelhead to spawn. As of last week, as the peak of the season nears, Garcia said 2,180 fish had been counted.

“This year’s been great, I would say because of El Niño, because of the rains,” he said.

After the hatchery trap was opened Saturday, the elevator was raised and the fish flipped down a chute to Garcia.

He captured them, determined their gender, punched a hole in a fin to prevent double-counts. He then called out their gender and length in inches to a colleague.

“Female, 27.” “Female, 28.” “Male, 28”

“It’s kind of violent, kind of brutal,” said Delon Howard of Sebastopol, an avid steelhead angler who watched the process earlier in the day with his wife and son. “But it’s for the preservation, so it’s good.”

The process played out as a band performed nearby and people wandered and snacked and browsed vendor booths, most of which had to do with conservation of natural resources.

Al Lucine of Petaluma stood on the bank of Dry Creek, watching as steelhead moved in the water below.

An angler himself, he said, “You see one and it’s on your line and you’re hooked, it’s magnetic. They’re bright, shiny, they’re powerful.”

He said his daughter is in Casa Grande High School’s United Anglers club, which last month spawned fish at the hatchery to get eggs for hatching at the school’s facility. It was the first time he had seen the process.

Student ‘enthralled’

“It was awesome. And she is enthralled,” he said. “She’s now got the drive to conserve and work for the fish, to make sure there’s clean water so there’s fish for her kids.”

He looked down at the creek again, at the meandering fish. “I’d rather see real native fish there,” he said, pausing and looking toward the grassy dam that holds back much of the North Bay’s supply of drinking water.

“But you can’t anymore. And this might be the only chance for my grandkids to see fish in that river,” he said.

Staff Writer Jeremy Hay blogs about education at extracredit.blogs.pressdemocrat.com. You can reach him at 521-5212 or jeremy.hay@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @jeremyhay.

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