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Hatchery trucks dumping steelhead into Sprague Lake

About 369,000 steelhead smolts are being stocked into Sprague Lake to avoid wasting hatchery fish that landed in limbo as a result of a Wild Fish Conservancy lawsuit.

“We have about 881,000 smolts to salvage from Puget Sound hatcheries and it isn’t easy to find them new homes,” said Chris Donley, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife Inland Fisheries Program manager.

The Western Washington-based WFC, concerned about the impact hatchery-raised fish may have on wild stocks, filed a controversial suit this winter. A settlement requires the state to cancel releases of hatchery smolts in Puget Sound.

With the exception of 180,000 smolts released under the agreement into the Skykomish River, most popular Puget Sound steelhead fisheries will be hurting in two years. Fishing guides, local businesses and hordes of anglers who look forward to returns of adult steelhead to their natal streams will be hurting, too.

Meantime, the state is trying to salvage the million dollars worth of fish it’s already raised but can’t release.

“It will cost us another quarter of a million now to transport those fish and hold them, in some cases, for growing to size before release,” Donley said.

“The agreement severely limits where we can put the fish, since the waters can’t be connected to anadromous fisheries, specifically to those in Puget Sound. Only about 25 West Side lakes are eligible.”

The lakes will be announced when the list is firm and fish are released, he said.

“Sprague Lake is sort of connected to the Columbia River system, but realistically they would never get there,” he said.

“Fishermen have suggested that some of the smolts be stocked in Banks Lake or the Potholes, but those reservoirs have a massive flow linked to irrigation systems that are all linked to the Columbia.”

Hatchery trucks have been delivering smolts to Sprague Lake for two weeks and the releases should conclude this week, Donley said. “Some of the fish are being hauled up to nine hours, so we expect some mortality. That’s why you’ll see some dead smolts around the boat ramps.”

How well the steelhead will survive is literally the million-dollar question, Donley said.

“We’ve never had to do what we’re doing here,” he said, noting that the steelhead smolts are genetically primed to “smoltify,” as they swim during spring from freshwater and naturally adapt to their new saltwater home. “We’re taking 881,000 steelhead smolts and telling them, ‘You’re no longer steelhead; you’re trout.’

“We don’t know for sure what will happen. But Sprague seemed like our best choice for an East Side lake to release 6- to 7-inch smolts and give them the best chance to grow to a catchable size.”

Some of the smolts will be consumed by the lake’s bass and catfish.

“Sprague is hyper-productive. The fish should be able to forage. If they survive, anglers can expect to experience a really good fall, winter, and spring fishery.”

While hatchery steelhead stocking was curtailed this year, Donley said the department is working to get all the hatchery permits required to release the next crop in Puget Sound streams.

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