It was like certain dinners I remember from the war. There was much wine, an ignored tension, and a feeling of things coming that you could not prevent happening. Under the wine I lost the disgusted feeling and was happy. It seemed they were all such nice people. Earnest Hemingway, The Sun Also Rises.
He could have just as well been describing fish managment on the Mckenzie for the last three generations and maybe I just need a few drinks and then a couple more. We’ve been abusing the river and pretending like we care–all the while avoiding facing the inevitable. We’ve pushed our native trout to the brink between Hayden Bridge and Forest Glenn-a majority or nearly so of the mainstem in the famed Mckenzie River.
Reknowned as the spawning grounds of the driftboat, we used to be a destination fishery. Some of the West’s first fishing guides made their livings here. Presidents used to fish here every summer . . . . Obama took up the fly rod in Montana.
Many still refuse to recognize that there is a problem, like addicts who only care about their short term fix. You can catch fifty hatchery trout and be asked, “what did you do after lunch?” But when a resource declines and the powers that be show little or inclination to fix it, conflict is unavoidable.
This conflict has been brewing underneath the surface of the Mckenzie River where our native trout population has declined to alarmingly low levels in the “sacrifice zone,” so described aptly by our Regional ODFW Fish Biologist.
In the local anglers’ collective consciousness, those who get it anyway, a sense of dissatisfaction has been growing, a nagging feeling that fishing could be better, hell, should be better on the Mckenzie River if only it was managed better . . . . If only one hundred and forty thousand hatchery trout weren’t dumped on top of our native fish, crowding them out of limted habitat and gobbling up finite food resources. If only bait fishing wasn’t allowed. If only certain vested interests weren’t standing in the way of progress . . . .
The underlying issue gurgled to the surface when Matt Stansberry of our local Mckenzie-Upper Willamette Trout Unlimited chapter and Chris Daughters, owner of the Caddis Fly Angling Shop published an opinion piece in the Register Guard suggesting it is time to start managing the Mckenzie for wild trout. This is hardly a radical notion. Montana and Washington don’t stock their moving waters with resident trout and Oregon, despite its green reputation is way behind on this issue.
Unsurprisingly, the Mckenzie River Guides Association came out in opposition to the proposal in a counter piece in the Register Guard. In case you don’t want to actually read this piece here are some highlights:
Stansberry and Daughters declare that the section from Blue River to Leaburg Lake is a “sacrifice zone” due to the number of hatchery-reared trout released in this section of river. This reach of the McKenzie would be more appropriately labeled as “multiple use,” or an area for sharing, available to all citizens — young and old alike, regardless of skill level or income. It’s a place where all types of anglers can enjoy a river trout fishing experience.
In this technological world where the general population is disconnecting with the outdoors and natural experiences at an alarming rate (see Richard Louv’s 2005 book “Last Child in the Woods”), having sections of the McKenzie River where anglers are allowed to catch and consume hatchery fish could very well be what preserves the “redsides!” It is heartwarming for us to see a family in a drift boat with youngsters excited by the real prospect of catching a trout. These are tomorrow’s sportsmen, sportswomen and conservationists. As opportunities for this type of outdoor experience decline statewide, angling pressure will likely increase in those areas that allow harvest.
To their credit, the MRGA wants to see bait banned between Goodpasture Bridge and Forest Glen. Bait hooked trout have a fifty fifty shot of surviving a release whereas flies caught on lures survive about twently four of twenty five times. But the Guides Association is plain wrong on the hatchery trout issue.
For one, the term sacrifice zone was not coined by Stansberry or Daughters. It is a quote from our ODFW biologist. Nitpicking aside, we all agree that it is a good idea to get kids outdoors. The area of disagreement is about what we teach them once we get them out there.
Do we teach them to live beyond their means? That the river is just a vessel to fulfill their selfish desire for a fishstick? Do we teach them to ask the river to give more than it is capable of?
Or . . .
Do we teach them to live within their means? Do we teach them to harvest only where and when such harvest is sustainable?
I know where I stand on those issues and the put and take fishery on the Mckenzie is out of step with the growing consensus that we should utilize natural resources in a sustainable manner.
Regarding the shared resource issue, the wild trout areas cited by the Guides Association are located either in the lower river, where extensive private property basically limits access to those of us with boats or in the swift and violent upper river, where the trout holding areas are accessable only to boats and those boats better be manned by highly skilled oarsmen–or else. I can fish there. Actually, I can watch people fish there. I have to be on the oars. But the old, the young, people without boats . . . sorry.
So, I ask this: Where’s our share? Where is our fair opportunity for the young and old, people of all incomes to catch native trout in the Mckenzie River? The current managment regime denies many that opportunity in the most highly accessible and productive area of the river. It needs to change.
There seems to be an idea that the river couldn’t sustain a fishery without the hatchery trout. This is not true. The science coudn’t be more clear:
“Fall wild populations of two-year-old and older brown and rainbow trout increased 159% and 868% in number and 160% and 1016% in total biomass respectively, four years after the last catchable-sized hatchery rainbow trout was stocked in the Varney section of the Madison river . . . [W]ild rainbow trout biomass levels were still showing increases four years after the last stocking. Wild brown and rainbow trout between 10.0-17.9 inches showed the greatest increases when stocking ceased . . . . “ (’The Effects of Stocking Catchable-Sized Hatchery Trout on Wild Trout in the Madison River and O’Dell Creek, Montana.’ E. Richard Vincent of the Montana Department of Fish and Wildlife, 1982.)
If we stop stocking the Mckenzie within four years it is likely that the number of wild rainbow trout will increase by up to 1100% and biomass may increase by as much as 1175%. I have combined the increases for browns and rainbows found in the Montana study as our Mckenzie fish do not have to compete with brown trout. With 11 times as many wild fish and 12 times the biomass with the largest increase in trout between 10 and 17.9 inches, I think children and people of all ability levels could still have an enjoyable experience without stocking.
But we don’t have to go to Montana for success stories. The Metolius is an example of an Oregon fishery that has taken off once stocking ceased. The Deschutes trout population absolutley exploded in the absence of competition from hatchery trout. Sadly, ODFW seems disinclined to learn from its past successes.
If you wonder why we care, some of it is simply for the sake of the fish. But there is also the angler in me who wants to catch more and bigger wild trout. Guiding or fishing the river I can tell instantly whena native is on the line. The speed and power are the giveaways. Anemic stocked trout simply struggle weakly. Even if you don’t fish take a look at these pictures and ask yourself what you would rather catch:
Native Mckenzie River Trout:
Seems pretty obvious doesn’t it.
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