CAMP SHERMAN — Three men waded down the Metolius River, their eyes trained on the pebbles lining the bottom of the riverbed.
Mist rose from water that, at 46 degrees, was balmy compared with the air, and frost covered the reeds and grasses poking up from the river.
The waders were searching for depressions in the stream bed. They also looked for oval-shaped areas of rocks recently cleaned of algae and therefore lighter in color — both telltale signs of what are known as redds, spots where redband trout had dug out nests to lay eggs.
"When you see a redd, you'll see a spot like a beacon," says Gene McMullen, a Bend fly fisherman who has helped count redbands since 2000.
With the help of volunteers like McMullen, biologists with the U.S. Forest Service and the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife have been conducting these surveys since 1995 and seen an overall increase in the fish.
Wearing chest-waders and polarized sunglasses, they go out every other week between December and May to search for and count the number of nests the redbands have made.
The agencies use the number of redds to estimate the health of the area's redband trout, a popular fishery that draws anglers to the Metolius. And with more than a dozen years of survey results on which to draw, fisheries biologists are also planning to use the data to see how redband trout respond to the salmon and steelhead that will be introduced into the area's waterways in the coming years.
Each winter and spring, redband trout that live in the Metolius swim upstream to spawn, says Nate Dachtler, fisheries biologist with the Deschutes National Forest's Sisters Ranger District.
They need a place where the water moves in a steady flow that is relatively warm, above about 44 degrees.
A female will turn on its side and slap the streambed with its tail, loosening up the rocks and gravel and clearing the sediment out of the pebbles. She'll lay eggs and then males will swoop in to fertilize them, Dachtler says. After that, the female will come back to cover the eggs with a mound of rocks.
Dachtler, McMullen and another volunteer, Clarence Sanders, of Bend, searched different sides of the river looking for the color changes, depressions and mounds.
"I'd say, Nate, that there's a redd over here," McMullen says, calling Dachtler over to an area where the rocks had less vegetation sticking to them.
It wasn't a typical spot for a redd, but Dachtler gave it the OK, and the two marked it with a white stone to signal it had been spotted and counted.
"Good eye, there, Gene," he says.
Volunteers from groups like the Central Oregon Flyfishers are important to the survey because the agencies in charge don't have much funding, Dachtler says. That's also why the biologists with the agencies and Portland General Electric, which joined the study a few years ago, alternate taking the morning to go with the volunteers to scour a mile of the creekbed.
The surveys started right around the time that Fish and Wildlife stopped stocking the river with hatchery fish, says Ted Wise, fisheries biologist with the state agency. And since the surveys started, the number of redds counted has gone up, he says, although the counts fluctuate over the years.
Dachtler says, "There's no real pattern yet, but generally that's how these populations go; they go in cycles. There's a lot of variables that could be causing that."
One is how much water is in the stream.
McMullen says he's noticed changes over the years that he has helped conduct the surveys.
He sees fewer redds located far upstream by the headwaters than he used to, he says.
"They don't trust it up here anymore," he says. "It's probably because the water's too low."
He says he started doing the study because he was interested in how the population of wild redband trout was doing in the Metolius, which he added is a tough river to fish.
"I don't even care if I catch them, just that they survive," he says.
But the redband redd numbers are still up significantly from when the survey started, Dachtler says. Last year, surveyors counted 923 redds, compared to 141 in the winter of 1995-96. And this year, the numbers seem to be on track, he says. If the numbers drop off dramatically, the agencies would do more studies to see what the cause might be, he says, but that hasn't yet happened.
The study also provides a base of information to see what will happen when chinook and steelhead are reintroduced to the Metolius and Whychus Creek as part of the relicensing process for the Pelton and Round Butte dams downstream.
"Part of the reason is to get background data to see what happens to them, and if they change a lot when the salmon is reintroduced," Dachtler says.
The redband trout might do better, he says, because after the salmon come to the upper reaches of the Metolius to spawn they die, potentially adding more nutrients to the river.
But steelhead, which are the same species as redband trout but migrate to the ocean, might make things a little harder for redbands in streams where they're reintroduced, such as in Whychus Creek, Dachtler says.
Since the steelhead have similar spawning and rearing habitat, they could be competition for the redbands.
"It may be interesting to see what happens to, say, Whychus, and if that changes quite a bit or not," Dachtler says.
Brad Houslet, fisheries department manager for the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs, says he doesn't think the reintroduction will have much of an affect on redbands in the Metolius, but it is something that fisheries biologists consider.
But the surveys are beneficial for the reintroduction, he says, because the ups and downs of the redband redd counts can tell people how well the Metolius River is doing.
"It's also a species that shows us how the health of the watershed is," Houslet says.
On the Net:
Central Oregon Flyfishers: http:www.coflyfishers.org/
Deschutes National Forest's Sisters Ranger District: http:www.fs.fed.us/r6/centraloregon/wildlife/sites/34-sisters.shtm l