Editor’s note: The following blog was written and photographed by Spokane angler Rick Itami who was invited to yesterday’s Nez Perce Tribe ceremony and joint release with ODFW of 500,000 coho smolts in a Northeast Oregon stream.
By Rick Itami
An event with special significance for Nez Perce tribal members and sports anglers took place on March 9, 2017 in the beautiful Wallowa Valley of northeastern Oregon, where the great Chief Joseph once hunted and fished as a youth.
The Nez Perce Tribe held a ceremony to release 500,000 Coho salmon smolts into the Lostine River on the Woody Wolf Ranch just east of the town of Wallowa, Oregon.
This was a major step toward re-introducing Coho salmon to the Grande Ronde River Basin. While Coho once flourished in the Basin, according to Becky Johnson, the Nez Perce Tribe’s Department of Fisheries Resource Management production division director, the fish were pretty much gone from the Basin since at least 1986. Her Division’s focus is “putting fish in the rivers” to rebuild natural spawning runs and to restore harvest opportunities.
This new endeavor is co-managed by the Nez Perce Tribe and the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. The project follows the Tribe’s successful re-introduction of Coho salmon to the Clearwater River Basin, where in 2014, 18,098 adult Coho passed over Lower Granite Dam. That was a big enough run for the Idaho Department of Fish and Game to open a catch and keep season for sports anglers.
The Coho Reintroduction into the Clearwater River Basin provided valuable lessons that hopefully will improve the chances for success in the Grande Ronde River Basin. Johnson says they learned to only use eggs and sperm from adults that returned all the way to the hatcheries and traps to ensure that the offspring would have the hardiness of the strongest fish.
The release was made possible by obtaining Lower Columbia smolts from the Cascade Hatchery on Tanner Creek. This is the same hatchery from which Coho smolts came from for the initial releases into the Clearwater River Basin.
According to Bruce Eddy, Manager of the Eastern Region of the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, the initial goal for the reintroduction is to have 600 adult Coho return to the Lostine River. This will be enough to provide the broodstock for 500,000 juvenile coho salmon. When asked when the Department might open a Coho season for sports anglers, Eddy says that it may as long as 10 years, depending on all the factors involved.
Art Broncheau, a Tribal Elder who worked for the Nez Perce Department of Fisheries for 17 1/2 years, hopes to see Coho runs in the Grande Ronde River Basin reach historic levels of 20,000 fish that are estimated to have returned in the 19th century. He emphasizes the cultural and religious significance of the return of the Coho salmon to the Nez Perce Tribe and says that water is the most important factor in the circle of life for the salmon.
It is said that Chief Joseph died of a broken heart while sitting in front of a campfire on the Colville Reservation after the U. S. government denied all of his petitions to return to his beloved Wallowa country. But one can imagine the iconic Nez Perce leader smiling down on the ceremony on March 9th that started the migration of a whole new generation of juvenile Coho salmon from the Lostine River down through the Wallowa, Grande Ronde, Snake and Columbia Rivers to the Pacific Ocean–a journey of almost 600 miles.
And hopefully for sports anglers who normally fish for steelhead in the Grande Ronde River Basin in October and November, they may also get a chance to land and take home a Coho salmon in future years.