Hefting buckets, nets and an aerator, Kim Brannock and her family set out Friday morning to help stranded fish in a dwindling pool in a dry channel of the Deschutes River close to Bend.
Going on tips from a fish biologist friend, Brannock used the nets to scoop the fish showing the most life into the buckets, where the aerator gave them a boost of oxygen.
“Oh my gosh, it is so hard to pick who gets to go,” said Brannock, 42, of Bend. Brannock spotted the fish Thursday afternoon while running along the Deschutes River Trail, downstream from Lava Island Falls.
Hundreds of fish, including rainbow and brown trout, as well as sculpin, filled the shrinking, heart-shaped pool.
Most were already dead as the side channel of the river around Lava Island had gone dry. The pool remained in what had formerly been a deep section of the river.
The Oregon Water Resources Department dropped river flows upstream of Bend within the last week, storing more water in Wickiup Reservoir in preparation for the next growing season.
The change saves water for water-right holders and was done in consultation with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, said Kyle Gorman, regional manager for the state's Water Resources Department in Bend.
“We are in storage season, now,” he said.
Gorman said he's been in Central Oregon since 1990, and this is the first time he'd seen lowered flows lead to stranded fish.
While the lowered flows started about a week earlier than normal this year, he said the department follows a ramping schedule to ease into them.
Chip Dale, regional manager for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, said he has seen flows drop around Lava Island Falls before, but he has never seen stranded fish there, either.
“I couldn't tell you why we saw it this year and not other years,” he said.
A leak in the Newport Avenue Dam in Bend recently lowered Mirror Pond and caused mudflats to emerge along the river in the heart of town. But Gorman said the Mirror Pond mudflats and the stranded fish, miles upstream on the Deschutes, are not connected.
More than 400 rainbow and brown trout, as well as about 1,300 sculpin and 1,300 whitefish, were found dead in the pool and four other pools that had gone completely dry in the side channel, Dale said.
The trout ranged from fingerlings to adults over 20 inches long.
Brannock,her husband, Lee Brannock, 42, her daughter, Bella Brannock, 7, and her neighbor, Courtney Davidson, 36, formed their own rescue team.
Amid the rush to move fish from the pool into the buckets, Davidson paused.
“This guy right here is breaking my heart,” she said as she looked down at a gasping, 6-inch-long rainbow trout.
Kim Brannock, who designs fishing waders and apparel for Patagonia, said she would like to see more water left in the river — for the sake of fish and other animals in what had been a wetland.
“I can't believe, in this community, that the water is managed like this,” Brannock said. “It's astonishing.”
For years representatives from conservation groups, irrigation districts, state agencies, tribes and Central Oregon cities have been talking about the distribution of water on the Deschutes, said Tod Heisler, executive director for the Deschutes River Conservancy. The talks focus on who gets what — and when.
“Ultimately, what we would like is to have some kind of agreed to (higher) minimum flow year-round on that upper river,” he said.
A pair of ODFW employees joined the fish rescue on Friday morning.
“We'll just try to salvage as many fish as we can and get them into the river,” said Erik Moberly, ODFW assistant district fish biologist in Bend.
Moberly joined a group lugging buckets full of fish onto the river trail and then up and over a riverside rise. The rock of Lava Island blocked a direct path to the main stem of the river, so the haul route covered about an eighth of a mile.
In all, about 500 fish were saved, Brannock said, mostly trout. There were also some sculpin, stone fish and crayfish in the buckets.
Moberly and Dale said ODFW officials would meet next week to determine if the agency should close trout fishing season early. The season usually lasts until Oct. 31.
Dale said the potential closure isn't related to the stranded fish. Instead, it's based on concerns about fish being particularly easy to catch farther up the river.
“The inclination is not to close it,” Dale said.