A new chapter for the Chewaucan

Biologists and landowners work together to resurrect a redband trout fishery in the high desert
June 26, 2006
Pat Wray

PAISLEY - If rivers were books, Oregon's Chewaucan River would be missing a few chapters from the middle, where the plot and the characters get meaty.

Key moments were edited out of the Chewaucan's story by men and their cattle the past 130 years. But state biologists and cattle-country residents are catching up, rewriting chapters that will change the ending.

Resurrection of a historic run of once-giant trout is well under way.

The Chewaucan River begins in the Gearhart Mountains northwest of Lakeview. Cool, trout-friendly waters combine in high meadows to flow past Paisley, southeast of Summer Lake. As water spreads onto the high desert, it devolves from river to canal.

Chapters go missing.

Historically, the flat land east of Paisley comprised a vast, remarkably productive marsh, choked with grasses, insects and tens of thousands of birds.

Native desert redband trout, often longer than 30 inches, moved freely from mountain to marsh.

These remnants of steelhead ancestors from a huge inland sea were "adfluvial," fish with the same sea-run migratory instincts, but without room to roam. Instead, young fish hatched in mountain streams rode the Chewaucan into cool, shaded marshes to rear before returning to spawn in mountain tributaries.

Cattlemen of the 1800s, however, considered the network a vast pasture in waiting. They dug ditches, tamed meandering channels and built weirs, or dams, to provide dependable irrigation.

Three weirs built on the lower Chewaucan blocking all fish were a near-death knell for trout. Within a few decades, most trout disappeared, leaving only resident fish in the upper river.

Pacific Northwest anglers found the survivors numerous and cooperative. Predictably, fish counts declined, and in the 1920s, the Oregon Game Commission, forerunner of today's Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, began stocking the Chewaucan with thousands of trout a year. The scenic upper basin became a popular angling destination.

Memories of massive redbands faded from the public mind until 1994, when the local community was stunned by a proposal to list desert redband trout under the Endangered Species Act.

Spurred by the prospect of losing the fishery, state biologists stopped stocking, a decision poorly received seemingly by everyone. Signs demanding the resumption of the fishery still are visible in Paisley.

But Roger Smith, the department's district fisheries biologist in Klamath Falls, said the decision was easy: "We needed to avoid listing the fish, because we would lose all chance of managing them."

Genetic testing revealed little, if any, genetic crossbreeding between native redbands and hatchery planters.

"The high desert is a very unforgiving place," Smith said. "The coastal rainbows we put in were either caught out or died due to the extreme high and low temperatures."

Then, in 1996, something happened that refocused the story's plot.

Biologists found very large, obviously adfluvial trout again at the Narrows Weir, the furthest downstream. A new chapter had been ghostwritten.

Biologists think the trout were juveniles that survived the one-way trip downriver past Paisley.

And biologists have discovered native trout rearing in River's End Reservoir, a newly constructed private impoundment collecting the Chewaucan just before it's swallowed forever by alkaline Abert Lake.

The discovery proved trout with a migratory urge could again repopulate the entire watershed -- if they could just get past the weirs and into the upper river to spawn.

Expensive, complicated fish ladders would be needed, as well as screens to keep young downstream-bound trout from pouring into irrigation diversions to die among the pasture grass.

Biologists contacted local landowners, because all three weirs are on private land.

"We had to prove our fish-ladder construction wouldn't screw up their dam or disrupt their irrigation," Smith said. "Luckily, Dick Mecham, the manager of the ZX Ranch, was great to work with, and we moved pretty quickly on the Narrows and Red House weirs."

The Paisley Town Weir was a much larger project, involving a massive concrete structure, multiple diversions and self-cleaning fish screens.

John Merwin, manager of the J-Spear Ranch, was the driving force there. Smith credits Merwin with finding money "all over the state" and providing cash and in-kind contributions totaling more than $850,000.

Merwin provided serendipitous leadership, as well. Spotting Gov. Ted Kulongoski and his wife lunching in a local restaurant one day, Merwin -- his clothes still less than fresh from working cattle all morning -- took the governor on a tour of the project.

"He left his wife there," Merwin said. "I'm not sure she appreciated it, but the governor was really impressed."

Soon, the Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board announced substantial grants for the Chewaucan projects. Merwin and Smith see the governor's subtle fingerprints in the decision.

Today, all three weirs have operating fish ladders, and the Red House and Narrows weirs are in line to receive fish screens as soon as funding is found.

The wild trout fishery upriver is thriving -- a two-trout daily angling limit, flies and lures only -- and redband youngsters ride the snowmelt downriver each spring, often before irrigation begins. Biologists believe large trout probably have made their way upriver from Paisley.

The Chewaucan River's marsh probably never will be returned to its natural state. Some old chapters can never be recovered.

But they, too, are being rewritten, and though the words will be different, the ending will be happy.

With very big trout -- lots of them.


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