Lake Sonoma Steelhead Festival spotlights Russian River’s prized fish

Lake Sonoma’s fish hatchery hosted thousands of humans Saturday - and the spawning steelhead they came to see.|

A dozen steelhead trout returning from their journey in the Pacific Ocean swam slowly against the current of Dry Creek on Saturday as a heavy stream of cars passed on the bridge overhead, en route to celebrate their return.

Organizers of the 10th Annual Lake Sonoma Steelhead Festival estimated about 8,000 people would make the drive down Dry Creek Road for food, games and educational tours.

That’s a few thousand more humans than the number of steelhead expected to arrive back at the Don Claussen Fish Hatchery this winter.

The festival comes just after the peak of the Russian River steelhead spawning run, which for hatchery fish ends at the base of the grassy slope of Warm Springs Dam at Lake Sonoma.

Eric Larson who oversees California Fish and Wildlife’s steelhead hatchery program at Lake Sonoma looked pleased at the turnout.

“We really want the community to understand what we’re doing here,” Larson said. “It’s twofold: kids learn about steelhead and parents see where their tax dollars are going. Plus there’s beer and wine.”

While steelhead - an ocean-going rainbow trout - are a threatened species north of the San Francisco Bay, the Russian River watershed remains a stronghold, Larson said, albeit one partly sustained by a state-run hatchery. It helps support a sport fishing season for the prized species.

About half the steelhead in the watershed are hatchery stock, with the other half coming from wild runs, Larson said. Anglers can only keep hatchery-reared and marked steelhead.

In the next week, about 150,000 juvenile steelhead will swim free into Dry Creek, with another release scheduled in March, Larson said. The young ocean-going trout will cross paths with spawning adults coming up the creek.

It’s a perilous, yearslong journey down the Russian River to the ocean and back. Hatchery managers are happy if 1 percent return to spawn, Larson said.

Some attendees took hatchery tours to learn about the inner workings of the facility, others walked around the Milt Brandt Visitor’s Center, featuring curated displays about ocean-going fish of Sonoma County. A peek over railings gave visitors a glimpse of both steelhead and endangered coho salmon in holding tanks.

The festival included fishing area, allowing kids to hook a steelhead, reel it in and hold it for a hands-on experience.

The streambank of the fish ladder connecting the hatchery to Dry Creek was a popular spot for families to rest and picnic.

Santa Rosa resident Andrew Somawang stood on a small bridge crossing the fish ladder holding his son, Oliver, 2, in one arm. His pint of beer rested on the railing. Three steelhead fresh from their long upstream trip swam slow circles in the water below.

Somawang typically spend his weekends fishing on Tomales Bay, often accompanied by his son, but high winds Saturday gave him a good reason to attend the festival for the first time.

Oliver finished his corn dog and promptly took keen interest in a 30-inch steelhead splashing in the water below.

“He’s already spent more time fishing than most people here,” Somawang said of his son.

You can reach Staff Writer Nick Rahaim at 707-521-5203 or On Twitter @nrahaim.

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