Changes in the Coastal Multi-species Plan include discontinuation of planting Alsea hatchery fish in Big Elk Creek and a new plan for Wild Steelhead Retention...
|Anglers Andre Sampier and Russell Wright search for a spot |
to fish on Harlan Rd. Much of the river flows parallel to the road.
The final planting of traditional broodstock Alsea Hatchery winter steelhead smolts were released in the spring of 2013. As part of the Coastal Multi-Species plan, the fish planting program that began in 1969 was eliminated due to a number of reasons according to ODFW Mid-Coast District Fish Biologist John Spangler. In an effort to better understand why the program was cut as part of this plan, I visited John's office in Newport for some Q & A.
|The author with a 2014 Big Elk Creek Hatchery Steelhead|
|Wild salmon provide an exciting bycatch. Marc Vangorden holds a Coho |
caught and released on a blue fox spinner from the middle section of Big Elk Creek.
Spangler explained that the current number of required wild steelhead for the Alsea Wild Broodstock program is 70, although a week later during a discussion at an Alsea Sportsman's Association board meeting, that number moved up to 80. The 20,000 smolts that were historically placed into Big Elk Creek are being converted from traditional hatchery broodstock to wild broodstock and placed in the Alsea River. As part of the Coastal Multi-Species plan, the Alsea hatchery would produce 80,000 wild broodstock and 60,000 traditional broodstock. The ASA is actively seeking volunteers to provide line-caught wild steelhead not just for the broodstock program but the Alsea Hatchery Research Center's "Biter Study." Spangler, an advocate for wild broodstock, explained that the program produces returning fish for harvest at a survival rate of 3 to 1 to traditional hatchery stock and that "Without strong wild stocks, our hatchery programs will decline."
Sport fishing catch statistics for Big Elk Creek have historically shown good numbers, breaking a thousand twice in the early 1980's. In recent years, the number has since fallen to around a hundred, with 109 fish being recorded as caught in the 2011-2012 winter steelhead season. The harvest numbers of wild steelhead 35 years ago, (prior to the development of the hatchery planting program) are roughly about the same at 100-200 fish annually. Without a consistent increase in harvest numbers, it's difficult to justify the cost of continuing the program.
Conservation being identified as a priority for Big Elk Creek played a role in it's hatchery program closing, but the system's lackluster to anglers makes it a weak link in the chain of recreational fisheries along the mid-coast. Spangler says, "The discontinuation of the (Big Elk Creek) winter steelhead program is a good call when looking at the broader coastal basins and where we have good boating/bank access that can provide a stronger economic benefit to coastal communities." The out-of-basin stock being used in combination with the lack of a trapping operations also allows for a high probability of hatchery strays and interaction with wild fish. One of the most common issues with the hatchery stock straying is that a significant number of hatchery smolts being planted in the Big Elk tend to return to the Alsea River. A 2012 creel check revealed that 96 Big Elk Traditional Hatchery broodstock were harvested that "strayed" from where they were planted back to their river of origin in the Alsea. With roughly a hundred hatchery fish harvested from the Big Elk that season there's almost an even split between the two waters. It's not just traditional broodstock that stray either. Eighty fish from the Siuslaw River's wild broodstock program strayed to the Alsea River last year as well. However, those broodstock are spawned at the Munsel Creek facility in Florence, then transferred to Willamette hatchery near Oakridge. Once hatched, they are transferred to Roaring River hatchery, and once they hit smolt-release size, they are trucked back to the Siuslaw. Needless to say, they are well traveled, much like the Big Elk's traditional broodstock from Alsea Hatchery. Trucking fish from one river to another, only to have them return to their point of origin rather than where they were planted creates a costly program that was hardly supported by the number of anglers fishing Big Elk Creek in recent history.
|Healthy populations of Sea-Run Cutthroat occupy Big Elk Creek. |
Marc caught and released this Trout from the upper area
of the creek on a 10mm bead under a float.
Spangler explains that the intention is to not only provide the opportunity to harvest a wild fish that may be mortally wounded, but to maintain a wild steelhead fishery. "We want people to be able to take a wild fish in the right locations. Historically, we used to harvest lots of wild fish. It will not impact their population with conservative and daily bag limits." He insists that the changes create a fishery that allows for a "cost effective" harvest program, but also says habitat restoration is another priority for Big Elk Creek. "The more habitat we have, the more smolts can be produced," says Spangler. Using the ESA listed Coho as an example, he explained that we spend millions of dollars on habitat restoration. "If we always tell people they'll never be able to take a wild fish again, will they care about them? It's habitat we really need to focus on."
Big Elk Creek Fishing Tips & How-to's for the final run(s) of returning hatchery fish:
- January is typically the best time of year for returning hatchery fish, although many of the wild fish tend to return later and into the spring.
|The Grant Creek bridge is the Angling Deadline for Big Elk Creek|
- Elk City Park campground sits on the corner of the confluence of Big Elk Creek and the Yaquina River with bank access to tidewater. There's also Big Elk Campground near the deadline of the Grant Creek bridge with bank access within the campground. The Grant Creek bridge is Southwest of the campground on Hilltop Road.
- The first major obstacle is a riffle and shelf spilling into slackwater between mile marker 4 and 5 on Harlan Road. Be aware there's a farmer just down the road with a very friendly border collie that likes to jump into the water and fetch your bobber when you're casting. If you bring a friend, one person can easily distract the dog while the other wets a line.
- Big Elk Creek is just that, a creek. The water narrows higher into the system, and presents unconventional obstacles. Fish will hold near any shelf that stretches the width of the river from bank-to-bank. Some of these shelves will be downriver of long stretches of shallow water and drop at 90 degree angles into deep water.
- Fish that are lower in the river will move quickly, pausing in deep holes mid-river and holding near spawning habitat in the upper river.
- There's lots of bedrock, boulders and shallow water riffles making drift fishing difficult. While jigs and pink worms under a bobber may produce in deeper areas, single egg patterns and spinners tend to snag less.