Friday, November 28, 2014

Big Elk Creek - Opportunity Lost?

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.
Big Elk Creek, a tributary of the Yaquina River that flows through Harlan, is a bankie's paradise. The first two to three miles is tidally influenced, bringing in fresh chrome to nearly 20 miles of water that is not only accessible, but clearly visible from the road. Excluding a few short stretches of private property postings, there's plenty of spots to crawl down the bank and wet a line. With several major surrounding rivers drawing most of the winter fishing, this tributary is often overlooked, presenting a great opportunity to get away from crowds. However, as appealing as this may sound, there's good reason this body of water draws less local traffic than it's counterparts. The deadline for salmon on the Yaquina is at the confluence of Big Elk Creek and special bait restrictions apply during the fall. Steelhead on the other hand are open year round, although the Alsea hatchery only plants 20,000 winter smolts into Big Elk Creek a year... or at least they used to.

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
Spangler says the status of the Alsea hatchery broodstock program is good. Anglers are happy, the fish return, but there is a lot of volunteer work that goes into collecting fish for the wild broodstock program. There's no information about wild populations on Big Elk Creek, and with only trap catches and survey information to go by, there are no hard numbers for the population of Alsea wild steelhead either. A cause for concern of the wild and hatchery interaction on Big Elk Creek is due to the lack of a trap to collect the returning hatchery fish. However, in a South Coast district meeting held in Bandon for comment on the CMP, retired U.S. Fish and Wildlife Biologist Dick Stroud said the plan was held on an unproven premise, stating that "I think the jury is out on this whole concept that hatchery fish are incompatible with wild fish," Coos county commissioner Bob Main agreed, saying that "There is no significant genetic difference between hatchery raised salmonids and naturally raised salmonids." The commissioner then went on to ask the crowd in attendance "How many oppose this plan for the South Coast?" nearly everyone in attendance raised their hands.

The information gathered on steelhead populations from spawning surveys calculate the fish per mile expanded by the river miles of habitat. For example, if a one mile survey has ten redds, assuming there are two fish per redd, there are twenty fish for that mile. Expand that by twenty miles of steelhead habitat and you get a "fairly loose estimate" of four hundred wild steelhead. When asked if there's any possibility to provide a wild broodstock program on the Big Elk, Spangler says, "Anything is possible, the problem is resources, utilizing volunteers and developing trapping operations."
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.
As a compromise to Big Elk Creek anglers losing the opportunity to harvest hatchery winter steelhead, the Multi-Coastal Species plan offers new regulations that will allow retention of wild steelhead in Big Elk Creek. This part of the plan has become another target for criticism. In a CMP Facilitator's Report published by ODFW, some of the concerns with wild retention include the potential for illegal wild harvest from adjacent streams due to some of the areas already being difficult to monitor and enforce the fishery. There's also serious concerns about accurately quantifying sustained wild populations before opening them to harvest.

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.
  • Be aware and respectful of private property postings.

    This article was featured as the cover story of the January 2015 issue of Northwest Sportsman Magazine. The photo was taken by Andre Sampier.
    You can purchase a digital subscription to the publication at the link below: 

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