Except for its aluminum shine, a steelhead is nothing like a soda can. Tail to snout, it's the length of some four or five cans, or about two feet long, with dark freckles and a rose blush down its muscular flanks. And when one of these mega-rainbow trout washes onto a cobbled Northwestern bank on its return journey from the ocean to spawn in its natal stream, it swiftly decomposes, stinks, and delights scavengers like bald eagles, microbes and willow rootlets. It doesn't sit lonely, crumpled, for decades.
Yet every winter, thousands of steelhead — each a rod-shuddering five, or 12, or even 20 pounds — migrate hundreds of miles upstream to Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife hatcheries, where they're placed into a watery recycling bin of sorts and picked through like so many bottles and cans. At the Nehalem River Hatchery about an hour and a half southwest of Portland, almost 2,500 artificially bred steelhead made the trip this winter. But just 60-70 pairs are set aside to parent the 90,000 smolts that will become the future run. The rest are eligible for "recycling," and once a week, on the curb of the river, employees sort the bin.
They sweep large screens through a hatchery holding pond, corralling these epic creatures. "Ripe!" or "Green!" the workers call out, lifting each fish by hand to determine if it's ready to spawn. With the squeeze of a thumb, "ripe" females ("hens") are relieved of their coral-orange roe, which is squirted into a bucket. Then they're released upstream to begin their out-migration to the Pacific, or, ideally, to the hook of an angler. Mature hatchery males ("bucks"), however, are simply carted off to nearby lakes, to live out their lives as bachelors — like empty cans swirling in an eddy.
The wildlife department truck pulls up when there are enough still-immature, "green" steelhead on hand to recycle. First, each fish is tagged — or simply hole-punched through the cheek — for the sake of recordkeeping. Then, 50 or 60 are dropped into a thousand-gallon aerated aquarium on the flatbed, and schlepped 10 miles downstream to the Aldervale Boat Launch. The tanker truck backs into the water. The stopper's pulled, and the steelhead pour into a stretch of river they've already swum. They mill about confusedly, then dart away. It's a six-mile swim back to the hatchery. During that one-day to two-week journey, Oregon anglers get a second cast at them.
As is the case with most artificially raised fish, the Nehalem Hatchery steelhead exist solely to be caught. But anglers don't always — or even very often –– succeed. Kirk Schroeder, an Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife biologist, estimates that fishermen brush up against just a quarter of any given river's steelhead. Far fewer, of course, are reeled in. (Steelhead have been described as "the fish of a thousand casts.") Still, many of the fish that anglers do land were recycled; luring both tourists and locals, they have a real redemption value for the Oregon economy. "We're doing everything we can to get (fishermen) another opportunity," says Eric Hammond, a Nehalem Hatchery employee. This year, he helped recycle 660 steelhead downriver; the hardiest among them were recycled, and counted, multiple times.
Sexually mature steelhead aren't recyclable because the wildlife department doesn't want hatchery fish spawning in the river, especially with their wild cousins. In an ideal scenario, all artificially raised steelhead would be removed from the river system each year, by hook or hatchery trap. Hatchery fish are genetically inferior, perhaps slightly inbred. They're designed to run earlier to avoid collision with native winter steelhead, and cradled in concrete ponds that are cushy, compared to a river.
Some worry that recycling steelhead might dilute the genes of native strains; that letting "green" fish linger — and possibly mature and mate — outside of the hatchery is a risky practice. One study Schroeder took part in reported that on the Siuslaw River, on Oregon's central coast, only one in 10 recycled steelhead were ultimately caught; over the course of three years, fewer than half of those recycled fish turned up again at all. No one knows where they went, but Schroeder says that the tributaries in which wild fish spawn certainly aren't "swamped" with strays. As with salmon, dams remain the biggest threat to steelhead in the Northwest.
Still, it may be telling that Washington state has canned its fish-recycling programs in all but a few places, in order to eliminate second chances for wrong turns and unsupervised philandering. There, anglers just have to look sharp, the first time around.