The First Salmon--a Bellwether

Jun 08, 2011
To celebrate the first salmon returning to the upper Deschutes, Don Ratliff a senior biologist with Portland General Electric, tells his story of this historic moment.


To celebr
ate the first salmon returning to the upper Deschutes, Don Ratliff a senior biologist with Portland General Electric, tells his story of this historic moment.

There he was, a Chinook salmon with a history that involved me, a 30-year dream, and 16 years of hard work by many. The fish looked much like the others swimming in the shaded concrete pond below Round Butte Dam, but this one was special. Like the others caught in the Pelton Fish Trap this May, it was beautiful, about 12 pounds, bright and shiny, strong and thick from 2 years gorging itself in the rich Pacific. The difference was that this one was missing part of the small bone along the right side of its mouth.

I remembered years ago requesting the “Right Maxillary Only Mark” (RM-marked) from Amy Stuart of Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife who passed the request on to the authorities that control fish marking in the Columbia Basin. We wanted a mark that was easy to apply, wouldn’t hurt the fish, and would distinguish our fish when they returned to the Deschutes as large adults as very special fish that reared naturally as juveniles in the Middle Deschutes, Crooked, or Metolius basin streams. Special fish because they had made it down through the hydro project and the lower Deschutes and Columbia as smolts--through the north Pacific during their growth period, and then all the way back as maturing adults. We needed to be able to tell those fish from the others so they could be passed upstream to spawn naturally--and begin to build back the wild salmon and steelhead runs in their historic waters upstream of the hydro project. 

This first Chinook was released by one of the many biologists and volunteers that distributed the first Chinook fry, only an inch and a half long, into the quiet waters along the banks of the upper Metolius River and Lake Creek in February 2008. In a way this fish is unlucky, because he likely will not get to pass upstream. We expect only a few adult Chinook this year--if passed they might not find each other and spawn successfully. In another way, he is very lucky. This beautiful adult salmon has grown from one of only about 700 smolts, finger-length juveniles that were captured moving downstream from the Metolius, and transported around Lake Billy Chinook to the lower Deschutes in late April 2009 after the new fish facility at the dam was delayed. I remember Megan Hill, our biologist in charge of fish studies and her crew quickly shifted gears after their studies couldn’t be completed, and operated the traps at Allingham Bridge and Monty Campground 7-days a week to get some fish out. Instead of tagging and releasing the smolts as their study plan required before the accident, they RM-marked them, placed them into aerated coolers of water in their PGE pickups, and drove them to the lower Deschutes to continue their journey downstream.

Some might say he cheated, getting a ride around the reservoir. But still he is a Metolius-reared Chinook, and he made it back from the sea. And his arrival truly is a bellwether, a sign of passing into a new era. A new era when kids in Sisters, Camp Sherman, and Prineville will eagerly await the annual arrival of the big salmon and steelhead; fish that will actually swim up the local stream right into town. For although only 700 Chinook smolts got out in the spring of 2009, in 2010 about 40,000 Chinook made it safely through the reservoir, into the new facility and were released into the lower Deschutes River above Warm Springs. We are nearing that number of Chinook passed downstream again this year, and also have passed out over 200,000 yearling sockeye smolts, and several thousand steelhead smolts with over a month left in the migration season.  

During the late 1970s and 1980s I and Zeke Madden, the older biologist I worked with for years, would occasionally bring up our desire to pass salmon and steelhead back over Round Butte Dam. Those in power at the time said that it will never happen. Zeke would load adult salmon in the old fish truck at the Pelton Fish Trap near Warm Springs--fish we were directed to recycle back downstream and release back into the lower Deschutes. He would look across the dusty cab at me with a twinkle in his eye and say, “lets just take 'em upstream and drop em off the dam--and don’t tell nobody.”  We never did. Zeke is gone now. But with the first adult Chinook that do go over the dam on their way to spawn in the Metolius, Whychus, or Crooked, I will be thinking of that twinkle, and the big smile I am sure he is now wearing.