Read Steve Pribyl’s Letter to ODFW Regarding Redband Trout Health in the Lower Deschutes River

Lower Deschutes River redband trout. Photo by Brian O’Keefe.

Last week Steve Pribyl, retired ODFW biologist on the lower Deschutes River and DRA board member, sent a letter to ODFW Director Curt Melcher and to each member of the Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission. The letter responds to recent ODFW assertions regarding the health and abundance of the lower Deschutes River redband trout population. Steve points out several critical misstatements from the agency that misrepresent the results of recent ODFW resident trout surveys. That letter can be read here.

As a brief summary, ODFW has performed electrofishing on the lower Deschutes River each April from 2014-2017 to capture and measure redband trout. After this year’s survey, an ODFW Field Report claimed there “is no indication the population has been adversely effected [sic]” by Selective Water Withdrawal operations, and that “Deschutes redband appeared to be in good abundance based on how easily [sic] they were to catch during this year’s monitoring.” SWW supporters have taken these statements and cited them repeatedly as evidence that the lower Deschutes redband trout population is as healthy and abundant as ever.

Obviously, we are all hopeful that the redband trout population below Pelton-Round Butte is healthy and abundant. However, as Steve explains, there is simply no way to know this based on the ODFW surveys performed to this point. These surveys have all been conducted to collect information on a few metrics, on a limited sample of trout, in only a few locations, at one point in time. This sampling is not designed to, nor is it capable of, estimating trout abundance and overall population health in the 100 miles of the lower Deschutes River. In fact, a 2016 ODFW field report specifically qualified the ability of these studies to assess trout abundance, stating “Abundance will not be evaluated due to the difficulty of accurately estimating trout abundance in large productive rivers like the Deschutes.”

Steve spent 20 years of his 30-year ODFW career on the lower Deschutes River, and performed many of the surveys that ODFW now claims to be “replicating.” In his view, ODFW’s statements on trout population health and abundance are extremely misleading, and are simply not supported by the survey data collected. We are disappointed that ODFW is making such unsupported statements, which are now being repeated by various Deschutes Basin stakeholders. And it is unfortunate that ODFW has not implemented adequate pre- and post-Selective Water Withdrawal monitoring studies to truly evaluate the population health of redband trout in the lower Deschutes River.

Lower Deschutes River Redband trout. Photo by Brian O’Keefe.

It is also unfortunate that such detailed studies were not mandated during the Pelton-Round Butte FERC relicensing process. At that time, ODFW had the authority to recommend various licensing conditions related to fish and wildlife. The agency did in fact recommend several such conditions, which were largely incorporated into the final FERC license. However, ODFW did not recommend that the licensees (PGE and the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs) perform any type of baseline redband trout monitoring in the lower river, or any post-SWW follow-up monitoring to assess changes in population health and abundance below the Project. This was a missed opportunity: rather than requiring the licensees to monitor and assess redband health populations, any such studies must now be funded and performed by ODFW. The redband studies performed so far seem designed to minimize cost and staff time, rather than to make detailed, accurate assessments about the trout population.

We think it is also worth mentioning that in ODFW’s post-SWW reports on redband trout health, the agency has failed to mention the black spot disease epidemic currently being observed in the lower river. Any discussion of fish health in the lower Deschutes River right now must include the infections being regularly observed in caught fish. Given the high numbers of Black Spot-infected fish observed by anglers these last two years, it is highly unlikely that ODFW has failed to observe the disease in their surveys.

The ventral surface of a redband trout with black spot disease, caught in the lower Deschutes River in late April 2017. Photo by Jamey Mitchell.

In sum, it seems that native redband trout in the lower river have become a lower priority for the management agencies—and the Pelton-Round Butte licensees—than the salmon and steelhead being planted above the Project. This is truly unfortunate, as the lower river trout population is an incredible native resident resource, and much of the year is what draws anglers and others to the lower Deschutes River.

We urge you to read Steve’s letter.

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Smallmouth Bass in the Lower Deschutes River

Many folks who have spent time on the lower Deschutes River this summer have noticed something unusual. Smallmouth bass, typically quite rare in the lower Deschutes, are suddenly present in large numbers. What are they doing there? Where did they come from? How does their presence affect resident fish? Today, we attempt to answer some of these questions, in two parts. In the first part of today’s post, we give an overview of this summer’s bass invasion, and attempt to sort out why we’re suddenly seeing so many of this particular species. In the second part, Steve Pribyl, former Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife Fisheries Biologist for the lower Deschutes River, provides a history of smallmouth bass in the lower river—a critically important perspective on what we’re seeing in the river this year.

Part One: 2016 Lower Deschutes River Bass Invasion

The weird things happening in the lower Deschutes River and its tributaries just never seem to end. A year ago the big story in the lower river was the two fish die-offs in June and early July. First with sockeye near the mouth, then spring Chinook near the confluence with the Warm Springs River.

This year, like in a science fiction movie, it’s the invasion of smallmouth bass. In a science fiction movie the bass would be from outer space, but in this case they are, in all likelihood, from the Columbia River.

Almost as soon as anglers began fishing for steelhead this summer in the Deschutes River’s lower 40 miles, we started hearing reports of smallmouth bass being caught. There have always been stories and rumors of a bass being caught here or there, perhaps once or twice a season in the lower river. But the reports this summer were of six bass being caught at a time! Or a dozen or more in a single float trip. Far more bass were being caught than steelhead (no surprise given the weak steelhead run this year).

By mid-August we had reports of smallmouth bass being caught as far upstream as Buckhollow Boat Ramp.

The most successful lure or fly for catching smallmouth in the Deschutes this summer was the Blue Fox spinner. We also heard reports of smallmouth bass being taken on steelhead flies, with streamers seeming to be the most productive. It is worth noting that these are not the sorts of flies and lures one would use if purposefully fishing for bass!

The problem with the bass invasion is that no one seems to know if these fish have moved in permanently, or are just visiting. We’ll not know until next year. But there is reason for alarm. If these fish do become residents in the lower Deschutes River, the redband trout population is at certain risk. Smallmouth bass and redband trout do not coexist well. Multiple examples abound of healthy rainbow trout populations being decimated after the introduction of bass into a trout fishery.

Why are smallmouth bass moving into the lower river? The most likely answer anyone has proposed is that warm spring water temperatures in the lower Deschutes River lured bass up from the Columbia River. Bass come out of winter dormancy when water temperatures reach the mid- to upper fifties, or even sixty degrees. They then seek out warm water to increase spawning success. This year the lower Deschutes River reached those sorts of temperatures over a month before the Columbia River did, likely attracting bass at that time. (For a biological discussion of smallmouth bass and temperature influence on bass behavior, see ).

The following graph shows that the Columbia River in The Dalles pool reached 60 degrees F right around June 1.


And this graph shows that the lower Deschutes River at Moody (just upstream from the confluence with the Columbia River) first reached 60 degrees F in mid-April.


Another important question as we unravel this mystery is whether the lower Deschutes River at Moody is warmer now than it was prior to selective water withdrawal operations at the Pelton-Round Butte Complex. There are no data with which to make that determination, as there wasn’t a temperature gauge at Moody until July 2011. However, the following graph shows that temperatures immediately below Pelton-Round Butte are now much warmer in the spring than they were prior to the commencement of selective water withdrawal operations.


Previous DRA research has illustrated that these higher discharge temperatures at Pelton-Round Butte impact river temperatures all the way to the confluence with the Columbia River. So it’s quite likely that spring temperatures at Moody are now significantly higher than before SWW operations began. Unfortunately, these higher spring temperatures resulting from SWW operations may very well be responsible for this year’s smallmouth bass invasion.

It has been suggested that bass in the lower Deschutes River might be of little consequence as bass and other species seem to be coexisting in the John Day River. But this is not an analogous situation. There isn’t a redband trout fishery in the John Day River that would be threatened by smallmouth bass. Juvenile anadromous fish are said to migrate down the John Day River somewhat earlier in the year than Deschutes River steelhead and Chinook juveniles. This means that in the John Day River the juveniles are migrating in colder water temperatures, when smallmouth bass are still dormant.

We won’t know the longer-term consequence of this year’s bass invasion until next year. If juvenile bass are present in the lower Deschutes River, it will be safe to assume that they have colonized the lower river.

Part Two: History of Smallmouth Bass in the Lower Deschutes River

By: Steve Pribyl

I worked for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife as a fish biologist on the lower 100 miles of the Deschutes River from 1977 to 1980, and again from 1985 to 2004. In addition to this work experience, I fished the river extensively during those years and have been able to spend even more time fishing since my retirement. I am very familiar with the history of smallmouth bass in the lower Deschutes River.

With the exception of drastically increased smallmouth bass abundance in 1996, which I will discuss below, there has always been a very, very small background number of smallmouth bass in the Deschutes River downstream from Macks Canyon (river mile 25). Before this year, the furthest upstream that I had personally observed a smallmouth bass was at Bull Run (river mile 18), with other very occasional observations downstream from there.

I fished the river downstream from Macks Canyon extensively for both trout and summer steelhead for almost 40 years before catching my first smallmouth bass this summer. Similarly, friends of mine that have guided professionally for steelhead on the river, several for more than 30 years, have caught very few smallmouth bass. Prior to this summer, these friends relate to me that in their entire careers on the Deschutes (with the exception of 1996, as discussed below), they probably caught less than 10 smallmouth bass total in literally thousands of days on the river.

Steve Pribyl with a recent catch.

Steve Pribyl with a recent catch.

1996 was an unusual year in the lower Deschutes River. That year, smallmouth bass were very abundant downstream from approximately Harris Canyon (river mile 12). In August 1996, guides reported catching up to 8 or 10 smallmouth each day while fishing for summer steelhead. I recall rowing an enforcement trip with members of the Oregon State Police, Fish and Wildlife Division, that summer where we contacted two anglers at Sharp’s Bar (river mile 5.5) that were actually targeting smallmouth bass and having considerable success. I specifically remember this event because while we were observing these subjects at a distance through binoculars, it appeared they were catching and keeping trout in excess of the legal size and catch limits. I recall the disappointment of the Oregon State Police troopers when further investigation revealed the fish to be smallmouth and no citations were going to be issued!

Smallmouth bass continued to be caught regularly and in impressive numbers throughout August and into early September of that year, but disappeared from the catch by mid to late September.

The sudden abundance of smallmouth in the lower Deschutes River in 1996 was both troubling and curious to me at the time. Large numbers of smallmouth had been present in the Columbia for many, many years, and the fish were present in Lake Billy Chinook, the reservoir formed by Round Butte Dam at about river mile 110. Yet they were rarely seen in the Deschutes River. I theorized at the time that either water temperatures in the Deschutes were colder than smallmouth bass really preferred, or the gradient of the Deschutes was higher then they could cope with very effectively. Either or both of these factors kept smallmouth bass from colonizing the river from upstream or downstream. Yet suddenly, in the summer of 1996, large numbers of smallmouth bass were present in the lower 12 miles. The temperature regime in the Deschutes had not changed that year, and obviously the gradient had not changed to allow smallmouth to live more effectively there.

With the information at hand, we formed a theory about the sudden increase in smallmouth bass that year. The passage of time, while not proving the theory correct, certainly has not disproved it either.

There was a very large rain on snow flood event in early February, 1996. Without researching flows in the Deschutes basin, I do recall that flows at the Moody gage were in excess of 70,000 cfs and that Warm Springs River at its mouth flowed in excess of 30,000 cfs.   Large volumes of flood water coming into Lake Billy Chinook necessitated a period of spill from the reservoir. Again, without researching it, I don’t recall how much was spilled, or for how long, but it was substantial. We theorized that there were many smallmouth bass entrained in that flood spill and passed through both Lake Simtustus and the Reregulation Dam Reservoir into the flowing Deschutes. These smallmouth bass, finding the upper parts of the Deschutes colder than their preferred temperature, progressively moved downstream until they found the warmer water of late summer in the lower 12 miles more to their liking, where they then took up residence. When water temperatures cooled in mid- to late September below those that smallmouth prefer, the fish again started to move downstream, this time into the Columbia. After 1996, smallmouth were again only a very rare capture, and I largely quit worrying about the species invading the lower Deschutes.

Smallmouth abundance in the lower 12 miles of the Deschutes has changed dramatically in 2016. In July, anglers started to catch five to ten per day while targeting steelhead, with steelhead gear in steelhead water. Several anglers in early August have actually targeted smallmouth and report catch rates of up to 10 smallmouth per hour, catch rates that would be considered good on the John Day River, a regionally famous smallmouth fishery. Smallmouth in excess of 16 inches in length have been reported from the Deschutes this summer. Even more unusual—and almost beyond belief—is the photo documentation of a largemouth bass caught in the Deschutes at river mile 12 in early August! This is the one and only documented largemouth sighting I am aware of in the Deschutes and I can’t even begin to wrap my head around what that means.

The obvious questions are (1) where are these smallmouth bass coming from, and (2) what has changed to allow the species to flourish in the lower Deschutes? With regard to the first question, I believe these fish are traveling up the Deschutes from the Columbia River. The protocol at the Pelton-Round Butte fish passage facility is to not pass smallmouth captured at that facility downstream into the lower Deschutes, so it is unlikely the fish originated above the dams.

So what is allowing smallmouth to flourish in the lower river this summer? While stream gradient in the lower Deschutes has obviously stayed constant, temperatures in the lower Deschutes have changed significantly. I believe PGE’s surface water withdrawal operations, designed to aid downstream juvenile passage at the Pelton-Round Butte Complex, have increased water temperatures in the lower river enough, and for a long enough period of time, that smallmouth bass are now able to invade the Deschutes from the Columbia River and find conditions that have apparently allowed them to flourish.

It remains to be seen how long smallmouth will now continue to use the lower river, but with continued releases of warmer water into the Deschutes from the surface of Lake Billy Chinook the situation is not likely to change. This is certainly troublesome, given the obvious negative impacts to resident salmonids from smallmouth predation.

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The DRA Position on Fish Reintroduction in the Deschutes Basin

Fish captured at Selective Water Withdrawal Tower being prepared for truck transportation around the three dams at the Pelton-Round Butte Hydroelectric Complex. Photo by Greg McMillan.

Fish captured at Selective Water Withdrawal Tower being prepared for truck transportation around the three dams at the Pelton-Round Butte Hydroelectric Complex. Photo by Greg McMillan.

A Portland General Electric (PGE) spokesperson recently stated that the Deschutes River Alliance is opposed to the reintroduction of salmon and steelhead above the Pelton-Round Butte Dam Complex. Here is the quote: “They [the DRA] want to go back to status quo prior to the selective water withdrawal system, and essentially to abandon the reintroduction effort for salmon and steelhead above the dams.”  The statement was made in the August 24, 2016 edition of The Source newspaper.

We are not sure what the PGE spokesperson was basing that information on. We have never stated that we want to “abandon the reintroduction effort.” His statement was erroneous and misleading. The DRA has regularly asserted our support for fish reintroduction – on our blog, at public events, and in various publicly disseminated documents.

The Deschutes River Alliance does support fish reintroduction as long as it doesn’t take place in violation of the Clean Water Act, or degrade the ecology of the lower Deschutes River and tributaries above the Pelton-Round Butte Dam Complex.

However, if the fish reintroduction goals are not attainable without serious negative consequences to other valuable resources, then the value of fish reintroduction needs to be reassessed. Unfortunately, what the PGE representative might have been trying to say is that PGE can only conduct fish reintroduction with the methods being currently employed. We believe that demonstrates a lack of willingness to adapt to conditions as they are. The concept of “adaptive management” is written into the dam license documents. To date all adaptive management efforts have been directed at reducing the water quality requirements for dam operation. Nothing has been changed; the goals have only been set lower. It is time to adopt alternatives that protect water quality while holding promise for even higher rates of fish reintroduction success.

Fish capture facility at the Selective Water Withdrawal Tower. Photo by Greg McMillan.

Fish capture facility at the Selective Water Withdrawal Tower. Photo by Greg McMillan.

At the present time, fish reintroduction efforts based on surface water withdrawal at the Pelton-Round Butte Complex are consistently violating the Clean Water Act. That is the basis of our lawsuit against PGE, an action we do not take lightly or without extensive research, analysis and careful consideration.

Further, selective water withdrawal and the resulting water quality violations have led to major changes in the ecology of the lower Deschutes River. These include changes in benthic algae, changes in aquatic insect hatches and populations, and changes in insectivore (insect eater) populations such as songbirds and bats. Warmer spring water temperatures due to surface water withdrawal are very likely responsible for a smallmouth bass invasion in the lower river. This year the Deschutes River at the mouth reached 60 degrees about 45 days before the Columbia River did, likely luring bass from the Columbia into the Deschutes.

The ecological impacts of tower operations are not limited to the downstream ecosystem. A recent report (Genetic Determination of Stock of Origin for Oncorhynchus mykiss Collected in the Upper Deschutes River Basin, Adams, DeHaan, et al, March, 2015) states that native redband trout have been all but extirpated from Whychus Creek. The cause cited is the genetic introgression of hatchery steelhead (planted for reintroduction purposes), which, once planted in Whychus Creek, failed to out-migrate and spawned with native redband trout. This has perhaps changed the redband trout genetics in Whychus Creek forever.

We strongly support the habitat rehabilitation work being done on Whychus Creek, McKay Creek, the upper watershed of the Warm Springs River, and the work being done in the upper reaches of Trout Creek. These are necessary efforts. These habitat improvement projects should take place irrespective of fish reintroduction for all the benefits this work provides. But the hatchery fish used for reintroduction purposes should not displace native resident fish.

Redband trout, lower Deschutes River. Photo by Brian O'Keefe.

Redband trout, lower Deschutes River. Photo by Brian O’Keefe.

Fish reintroduction efforts began in 2008 when juvenile fish were first planted in the tributaries to Lake Billy Chinook. To date, the results of the reintroduction effort have been less than successful. Numerical goals defining successful fish reintroduction contained in the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission license for the project have never been met, and we can see no likelihood that they will be.

PGE has claimed that they need more time. To do what? What is going to change in the next year or two that will result in enough juvenile fish migrating to the fish collection facility at Round Butte Dam (there to be trucked around the dams), or enough adults returning to the Reregulation Dam (to be trucked up to the reservoir), to meet the stated and defined goals of the reintroduction program?

Last year 32 sockeye salmon returned to the Pelton-Round Butte Hydroelectric Complex. Later analysis showed that only 3 of those fish originated from the dam complex. PGE claims that this year 400 sockeye have returned to the project. But how many of those fish are from out of basin or not otherwise part of the reintroduction program? Steelhead and Chinook salmon returns have been less than bountiful. Juvenile arrival numbers at the fish collection facility at Round Butte Dam would predict no improvement in adult fish returns for at least the next few years.

An objective audit of the fish reintroduction program needs to take place. We believe a major revamping of the reintroduction program is necessary if the program is to succeed and the serious unintended consequences of reintroduction are to be stopped.

The DRA has always supported fish reintroduction. But the fundamental requirements of the Clean Water Act must be upheld, and the Deschutes River’s ecology and resident species must not be sacrificed.

The reason that fish need to be reintroduced is because several major runs of anadromous fish were lost when the dams were constructed, blocking access to some of the most important spawning habitat in the Deschutes Basin. Let’s not compound that loss with a new generation of loss.

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Yellowstone River Closed Due to Fish-Killing Parasite

On Friday, August 19, Montana’s Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks announced the closure of 183 miles of the Yellowstone River to all recreational use. The reason for the closure was the discovery of over 2,000 dead mountain whitefish and reports of dead rainbow trout and cutthroat trout.

Photo: Google Photos

Photo: Google Photos

The cause of the fish die-off appears to have been proliferative kidney disease (PKD), which is caused by a parasite known as Tetracapsuloides bryosalmonae. In the past, this organism has caused outbreaks of disease and fish death amongst salmonids in various hatcheries and freshwater in the Pacific Northwest. It seems to be most hazardous to fish when water temperatures reach and stay above 54 degrees F. The Yellowstone River has been low and warm this year.   There are no antibiotics to treat the infection.

The Yellowstone River was closed to prevent transmission of the infectious agent to other waters.

Photo: Google Photos

Photo: Google Photos

We want to bring this to everyone’s attention as a reminder that if you travel to different bodies of water to fish, please be sure to clean wading boots, waders, fish nets and boats prior to moving to the next body of water. There has been a fair amount of controversy and disagreement as to what adequate cleaning consists of. We are providing a link to the most recent, and arguably most logical, guidance on the cleaning of fishing equipment. The instructions are relatively easy to follow and don’t include any measures that shorten the life of your gear (bleach, heat, etc.).

The instructions can be found at this link:

Please help us keep the lower Deschutes River and all bodies of water free of invasive species!

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DRA Files Federal Lawsuit to Enforce Clean Water Act

Selective Water Withdrawal Tower surface struture. Round Butte Dam is to the right of the tower.

Selective Water Withdrawal Tower surface structure. Round Butte Dam is to the right of the tower.

On Friday, August 12, 2016, the DRA filed a Clean Water Act citizen suit against Portland General Electric (PGE), to enforce water quality requirements for dam operations at the Pelton-Round Butte Hydroelectric Project. The requirements are found in a water quality certification issued by the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality as part of the federal licensing process for the Project.

These requirements, for criteria such as temperature, dissolved oxygen, and pH, were designed to ensure the Pelton-Round Butte Project complies with applicable Oregon water quality standards. Ultimately, the requirements and the underlying standards are aimed at preventing degradation of water quality, and at preventing harm to the various beneficial uses of the lower Deschutes River. Unfortunately, since the Project’s selective water withdrawal tower began operations in late 2009, PGE has operated the Project in violation of these requirements. Through June 2016, the DRA has identified over 1,600 daily violations of the Project’s water quality certification.

Fish being held at SWW Fish Collection Facility to await truck transportation around Pelton-Round Butte Dams.

Fish being held at SWW Fish Collection Facility to await truck transportation around Pelton-Round Butte Dams.

The fundamental mandates of the Clean Water Act must be upheld.   Many of us remember the days prior to the CWA. Rivers were so polluted in the United States that some caught fire. Fifty years ago, for example, the Willamette River was little better than a sewage ditch, and now vast reaches of it are restored. The lower Deschutes River must similarly be afforded every fundamental federal and state legal protection necessary to preserve and restore its beneficial uses and ecological integrity.

To date, the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality has not enforced the Project’s key water quality limitations, so the DRA is taking action directly under the Clean Water Act’s citizen suit provisions. The lawsuit has been filed in Federal District Court, District of Oregon, Portland Division, and we’ve placed a copy of the filing on our website.

Round Butte Dam to the right, SWW Tower in center. View is looking west at Metolius Arm of Lake Billy Chinook.

Round Butte Dam to the right, SWW Tower in center. View is looking west at Metolius Arm of Lake Billy Chinook.

Litigation is clearly an option of last resort. We remain open to discussion with PGE, of course, but this lawsuit, at this time, is a necessary step toward restoring the river we all love.

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In Memoriam: Doug Robertson

It was with great sadness that we learned of the passing of Doug Robertson, a longtime advocate for the Deschutes River and for wild fish. Doug was 69 years old.

Each person who floats, fishes, or camps on the lower Deschutes River below Macks Canyon should give thanks to Doug.

In 1983 the Eastern Oregon Land Company owned most of the lower twelve miles of the Deschutes River. The land was used primarily for cattle grazing, and the banks of the river were totally denuded of any vegetation. Gravel bars over a mile long were the norm. There were few alder trees to offer shade.

Doug learned that Eastern Oregon Land Company was interested in selling the property. One potentially interested party was planning on developing a resort in the Harris Canyon area.

Doug negotiated an offer to purchase the property, and then convinced then-Governor Vic Atiyeh to provide State of Oregon backing for the offer. Governor Atiyeh asked Oregon Wildlife Heritage Foundation to lead an effort to raise funds to purchase the land. OWHF raised over $1 million of private money, and cobbled together state and federal funding to complete the purchase on behalf of the people of Oregon.

The State of Oregon took possession of the property, and streamside recovery began under the management of the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. That stretch of river is nearly unrecognizable from what it was before Doug stepped in. Today, it is one of Oregon’s most treasured recreational assets.   None of this would have happened without Doug’s vision and efforts. All of us should be eternally grateful to him.

Doug was a dedicated fly angler, and he had a lifelong love for the Deschutes. He and his wife Nan own a cabin above the Locked Gate. Doug was also a longtime board member of the Native Fish Society.

There is a monument bearing Doug and Nan’s names at Robertson Point near Harris Canyon. If you stop there, please take a moment and say a heartfelt thanks to a man who made a major difference on the lower Deschutes River.

Our sincerest condolences go out to Doug’s wife Nan, and their family and friends.

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2016 Stonefly Hatch: A Recap

Photo by Rick Hafele.

Photo by Rick Hafele.

It’s come and gone. No one is even talking about it any longer. Why? Well, it wasn’t exactly epic. Or was it?

Here’s the lowdown on the 2016 stonefly hatch based on personal observation; reports from friends, guides and outfitters; emails; and reports to our hatch observer database. This collectively represents hundreds of fishing days, if not over a thousand. None of this will be a surprise to those who were there for it. And many were there! The annual stonefly hatch remains the single largest trout fishing frenzy on the lower Deschutes River.

The first salmonflies were seen mid-April once again this year. Golden stones were seen not long after. Both were first spotted down below Sherars Falls. The big bugs appeared very sporadically until early May. Then numbers began to pick up and the hatch spread further upstream to well above the locked gate at the upper end of the access road above Maupin.   There were a few scattered reports of good numbers of stoneflies during that time. If you were fortunate enough to be on the river those days, the fishing was off the hook.

Then harsh weather set in. It got colder and there were heavy rains and the hatch all but disappeared but for a few hardy bugs clinging to grass and alder leaves.

Days later, the bad weather turned back to good weather and the hatch started back up, progressing up to the Kaskela area. Once more, if you were on top of the hatch in the right location, fishing was excellent. Then once again the weather turned wet and cold for days on end. The bugs again became hard to find. The quality of the fishing suffered. The last guide report of large numbers of salmonflies or golden stones seen on the river was May 17th. Only low to moderate numbers were seen after that until the final observed golden stones were reported on June 5th.

Photo by Brian O'Keefe

Photo by Brian O’Keefe

When weather conditions in the canyon were wet and cold, it was hard to find a stonefly anywhere. The trees and grass were bare. The big bugs were hiding from the conditions. If they aren’t out crawling all over the place, they aren’t finding mates. If they aren’t finding mates, no mating takes place.

This pattern repeated itself three times. Finally a meager representation of the hatches of earlier years hung on for about a week and half, reaching all the way up to Dizney Riffle. Then it fizzled out all together.

Mixed in with the stoneflies in mid-May was about a week and half period where everything was hatching. Green drakes, pale morning duns, pale evening duns, Beatis, caddis, it was all happening at once. There were even a few Antocha crane flies seen! But all of that ended as quickly as it began. And the total numbers weren’t all that exciting. It was perplexing to see June and July hatches in mid-May.

We are still getting some reports of good numbers of caddis in the tops of alders at last light on calm evenings. But the mayfly hatches of early to mid-summer are now totally missing in action.

What meaning does all of this have for the lower Deschutes River and the future of aquatic insect species? If this year had been a one time, one-off affair, it would probably mean little, being what biologists call annual variability. But it’s become a common way for spring to unfold on the lower river.

Most disconcerting is the role this might be playing in stonefly reproduction. Salmonflies emerge after three to four years as nymphs, golden stones after two to three years as nymphs.   Any impact of this year’s weather on mating won’t be seen until 2018 to 2020. The problem is this: with warmer winter and early spring river temperatures as a consequence of surface water withdrawal at Round Butte Dam, stoneflies emerge sooner and into the often harsh conditions of early spring, not late spring/early summer as they used to. The consequence is that reliably they are now challenged to find mates and get their reproduction needs accomplished.

Anyone who has spent years on the lower Deschutes River knows that stonefly numbers are down. Way down. According to Portland General Electric’s Lower Deschutes River Macroinvertebrate and Periphyton Study (page 97), “Stoneflies were not numerically abundant, but were widely distributed and contributed substantially to the invertebrate biomass by virtue of the often large size.”  That was some nice positive spin in the end of that quote, but the reality is that stoneflies are no longer “numerically abundant.” Unlike with many of the mayfly species and Antocha crane flies, this is probably not linked to the nuisance algae growth in the lower river.

Salmonflies as nymphs are detritivores, meaning they scavenge broadly across a river bottom eating dead material, mostly from plants. Golden stoneflies are roving predators and tend to feed on slow moving macroinvertebrates like midge larvae and worms. So the documented increase in worm populations in the lower river should be benefiting them. Nuisance algae are less likely to affect stoneflies as they spend time crawling between or under rocks, avoiding the algae covered top and side surfaces.

That means the declining numbers are most likely due to something else. Most likely that “something else” is hatching early into weather conditions not conducive to mating activity for much of the short adult phase of their relatively long lives. If reproductive success declines, the population declines.

June was a much warmer, drier month than May this year (like most years) on the lower Deschutes River. We’re guessing the stoneflies would have preferred those conditions.

Photo by Brian O'Keefe.

Photo by Brian O’Keefe.

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