It might be the first steelhead caught above Round Butte Dam since the 1960s.
Brad Hanson, of Redmond, tied on his favorite plug, a blue pirate Kwikfish, and made his first cast. In Lake Billy Chinook’s calm water the Kwikfish winked in the December sunlight. Then the speed of the boat pulled it under and the lure began its hypnotic shimmy and shake.
Hanson, fishing with Jeff and Josh Snow, thought he might hook a bull trout or a brown.
“It had only been wiggling for 15 to 20 feet and then a fish hit it once, then hit it again,” Hanson said. “I thought it was a bull trout.”
Loaded with 10-pound-test line, the reel screamed as the fish took off on its first run.
“It was a good battle. It hit and went running through the air,” Hanson said. That’s when they saw the spaghetti. Two green tags trailed off the fish on either side of its dorsal.
In a few minutes, the fish, a male, was close to the boat and Jeff scooped it up with the net. They lifted it out, took a picture and got it ready to put back.
“The right maxillary (fin) was clipped,” Hanson said. “It had its adipose fin. It wasn’t a tired fish and when I released it, it took off like a bullet.”
This steelhead, this ocean-going rainbow, had been captured in a trap for up-migrating fish at the base of the dam complex then trucked around and released through a special release facility.
According to Erik Moberly, an assistant fish biologist for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife in Bend, this green-tagged fish had been transported upstream then released as part of a group of 24 steelhead. This one pointed up the Crooked River arm and was only a little ways from the first set of rapids when it slammed the Kwikfish.
Moberly said this fish, according to the unique tag numbers, had also been fitted with a radio tag to allow biologists to monitor its upstream progress.
“They (biologists) lost track of the fish a day or two later and they think the fish spit it out,” Moberly said.
By this time, the pod of steelhead is probably somewhere between the Grasslands and McKay Creek, headed toward ancient spawning grounds.
Anglers should note that any rainbow in the reservoir longer than 20 inches is now considered a steelhead and must be released.
Moberly said it is possible others have been brought to hand. Not everyone who fishes Lake Billy Chinook knows about the project that has routed salmon and steelhead above the dam in the last few years. Not everyone can identify a steelhead; others might not have reported it.
After they caught the steelhead, Hanson and Snow managed to catch three bull trout, three browns and two rainbows, what you might call the Round Butte grand slam.
When Round Butte Dam was constructed, the power of the water was harnessed by three 1,000-kilowatt generators. Today, the entire Pelton Round Butte complex generates enough energy to power a city the size of Salem. But confusing currents halted fish passage between the Metolius, Crooked and Upper Deschutes rivers and the Pacific Ocean.
Portland General Electric, in cooperation with the Warm Springs tribes and the ODFW, built a fish passage facility and redirected currents in an effort to trap out-migrating fish. They are sorted by size then piped into holding ponds, then get a 35-minute truck ride around the dams and are put back in the river.
Returning adults are collected in a trap below the dam complex, trucked upstream and released to complete the final leg of the migration up the Deschutes, Crooked or Metolius.
Fish that head up the Crooked might spawn in the river or in McKay Creek or Ochoco Creek. Hanson thinks anglers fishing the Crooked River this winter might want to tie on stronger tippets in case they hook a big one.
“There could be steelhead up there by now,” Hanson said. “I heard of a guy hooking into something big on the Crooked that took him for a ride and broke him off. It wasn’t a rainbow. Some of those fish could be up there by now.”
— Gary Lewis is the host of “Adventure Journal” and author of “John Nosler — Going Ballistic,” “Black Bear Hunting,” “Hunting Oregon” and other titles. Contact Lewis at GaryLewisOutdoors.com.