For those of us who were able to go, the USU AFS steelhead trip was certainly an experience to remember. We had the opportunity to tour a state of the art fish hatchery located on the East fork of the Salmon River near the foothills of the beautiful Sawtooth Mountains. Although the hatchery was not working with steelhead during our visit, we were still able to witness the methods which are used to sustain a healthy chinook population in Idaho’s watersheds. In addition to touring and networking with the sawtooth hatchery personnel, we also had time to fish for steelhead to help us better understand their behavior and life histories. With lots of hard work and patience, several members of the group were lucky enough to hook into a determined steelhead as they proceeded upstream on their 700 mile journey.
Biologist Phil Kuntz with the Idaho Department of Fish and Game explains the process of imprinting in the chinook that they raise in in their facility. Imprinting is a biological process where some fishes are able to remember the exact tributary where they were hatched. As these fishes smolt and move downstream toward the Pacific Ocean, the chemical signature of the water is imprinted in their memory.
Members of the USU AFS Subunit learn the complexities and obstacles that come with raising fishes from egg to fingerling. The Sawtooth Hatchery maintains chinook salmon for 18 months before releasing them into the river where they smolt. Smolting is the process where salmonids undergo physical changes in preparation for their migration to the Pacific Ocean.
Chinook sac fry remain in the incubator until they are capable of eating and swimming on their own. This hatchery environment ensures an increased chinook survival rate by maintaining optimum water temperatures and flows, while also eliminating predation factors.
Once the chinook fry consume their entire yolk sac, they are moved to the indoor raceways where hatchery personnel become responsible for supplying them with proper nutrients.
Before the chinook are released into the river, they are brought to the outdoor raceways. This is an important step in raising these fish because they rely heavily on the timing of the Sun to trigger their natural smolting and imprinting processes.
Sawtooth hatchery personnel throw food into a raceway which is quickly followed by an explosive feeding frenzy. Chinook are thought to be the most prized of the Pacific salmon as they can grow to be 5 feet long and well over 100 pounds. Most of these Chinook will find their way to the Gulf of Alaska where they will spend 2-3 years before returning to spawn and die.
Phil gives us an up-close look at the Sawtooth Hatchery trapping station. Returning fishes navigate their way through this station where biologists sort, spawn, and inspect them for pathogens. This station is also capable of automatically logging pit tags as the fishes move up. The collected data is then instantly sent to their headquarters in Boise, ID.
Cody prepares a steelhead for processing. With his keen eye and surgeon like touch, he is able to successfully
remove the steelheads otoliths. We were able to collect otoliths from 5 different steelhead and plan to examine them in further detail to help us better understand their life histories.
I was in disbelief when I landed my first steelhead. This fish was not processed as he had an unclipped adipose fin which indicated he was a native fish. I was happy to quickly release him and watch him continue on his journey upstream.
Mark plays his first steelhead toward Cody’s net.
Matt floats down the Salmon River in pursuit of the perfect fishing hole.
Cody shows off his steel.
All in all, this trip turned out to be a great learning experience as well as a great time fishing of course. A special thanks to all of those who made this unforgettable trip possible for us: Officers of the USU AFS Subunit, Dr. Pheadra Budy, Gary, the Idaho Department of Fish and Game, Jan’s Mountain Outfitter, and the USU ORP. Thank you!