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.