Nine months and 600 miles after they returned to freshwater, the first steelhead of the year made it to Wallowa Fish Hatchery.

Around 30 summer steelhead were taken from the hatchery's fish ladder last Wednesday and trucked to nearby Marr Pond, where they were released for anglers.

The steelhead first returned to the Columbia River in May and June, after spending much of their life in the Pacific Ocean, sometimes traveling thousands of miles to feed and grow. By fall the steelhead have crossed eight dams - four on the Columbia and four more on the Snake - while making their way upstream to the hatchery. After staging in the Grande Ronde, the steelhead arrive at the Enterprise hatchery in late winter and early spring.

"It's one of the most gratifying times of the year," said Ron Harrod, Wallowa Fish Hatchery manager. "It's like your kids are returning. That's the really neat thing about working at a salmon or steelhead hatchery."

Each year, around April, the hatchery releases 800,000 year-old steelhead, called smolts, into the Wallowa River. Half a million are released from the hatchery itself, and another 300,000 are acclimated and released at Big Canyon near Wallowa.

Three to four years later, a small portion of the fish that survive the lengthy journey down the Snake and Columbia and into the ocean will return to the hatchery to be spawned. Generally, around 3,500 and 4,000 fish escape predators, survive swift currents, commercial gill netters and anglers from Astoria to Minam.

"The main purpose is harvest," Harrod said of the hatchery releases. "They are caught all throughout the system."

From plunkers near Longview, Wash., to trollers below John Day Dam to fly anglers at Troy and Minam, the steelhead raised at the Wallowa hatchery fuel one of the most anticipated sport fisheries in the Northwest.

"The popularity of the fishery has increased greatly over the years," Harrod said. "It is a local boost to this area. It's a really neat thing to be able to do."

The portion of the fishery in Wallowa County is about to peak.

"They have been catching fish down there for about a month," Harrod said of fishing near Minam. "There are good opportunities from now into April when it closes."

The Wallowa steelhead are favorites of anglers throughout the region because they are known to be biters. "It's very popular with fly fishermen," Harrod said. "This stock of steelhead is an aggressive stock of fish that likes to take a fly. This stock of fish is aggressive."

The fish actually began arriving early this year at the hatchery. Heavy snow and then high water caused by warmer temperatures and rain pulled some of the steelhead into the upper Wallowa early. Usually the first fish reach the hatchery in late February.

This year, biologists expect around 2,400 steelhead to return to the hatchery fish ladder and another 1,250 to be trapped at Big Canyon. That's plenty of fish to harvest enough eggs for the next batch of Wallowa-strain summer steelhead, while also providing an estimated 270 fish for winter fishing at local ponds, as well as fish for the food bank.

The fish that were dumped into Marr Pond can be caught casting spinners or spoons, soaking a nightcrawler under a bobber or fishing salmon eggs off the bottom with a marshmallow. Cold temperatures, however, could slow the fishing. Hatchery workers had to break through the ice before planting the fish last Wednesday.

Harrod said the first-arriving steelhead are taken to ponds, while the riper fish later this winter and early spring will be used for the eggs needed to produce the next generation of fish.

"We like to put them in early while they are still in good shape," Harrod said of the first release into Marr Pond.

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