Perfect Circle

While planning a fishing trip along the upper Rogue River, 19-year-old David Pease stopped by Cole Rivers Hatchery to take in the sights on a fall day in 1985.

Amid the rows of concrete ponds bursting with infant salmon and steelhead, Pease spied a man tossing fish food to the hundreds of hungry mouths jumping about the water's surface.

"I thought it looked pretty cool, so I asked how can I get a job up here," Pease says.

Pease was hired as a "conservation aide" there a few months later. That was Valentine's Day in 1986, beginning a love affair that's lasted 22 years as Pease worked his way up to assistant manager while helping spawn, rear and release more than 200 million fish.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers pays the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife to operate the hatchery. Its purpose is to raise and release salmon and steelhead as mitigation for wild salmon habitat lost after the building of Lost Creek and Applegate lakes.

The hatchery sits near the base of Lost Creek dam. More than 5 million fish are reared annually there under Pease's watch.

There's no empty-nest syndrome here. Pease and other hatchery hands know their job is to pump out salmon for sport-fishing in the ocean and throughout the Rogue Basin as well as for commercial fisheries at sea.

The most gratifying part of the job is in late summer, when about 1.6 million spring chinook salmon smolts are flushed from hatchery ponds and head to sea.

"After taking care of them for almost a year, you can't wait to see them leave," Pease says. "It's like, whew, they made it. They're gone. Then you go out and do it again."

Pease has done virtually all the jobs at the facility, which follow the salmon's life cycle.

Workers collect returning adults that are used as brood stock for spawning the next generation of fish. Salmon or steelhead are spawned about 20 days a year. The rest of the time often is filled with the mundane tasks of keeping the infant fish full of food, in plenty of temperature-regulated water and disease-free while they move from pond to pond.

Pease writes what he calls "my monthly brain," a cheat-sheet of sorts that lists the numbers of fish in each pond, their sizes and which fins are clipped to identify them as hatchery fish.

Pease has passed on plenty of opportunities for moving on, intent upon raising fish for his hometown river and those who fish in it.

"A lot of guys think the smaller hatcheries are the places to be," Pease says. "But my family's here and we like the area."

Pease says the best part of the job is knowing he's helping improve the recreational pursuits of thousands of Oregonians who angle for fish he helps raise.

Nothing reminds him of that more than when riding on the tanker trucks used to transport and release fish into rivers and streams.

"There will be a bunch of people fishing, not catching anything," Pease says. "Then you roll up, dump the load and all of a sudden you see a kid fighting a fish. Sometimes it's their first fish. They get so excited and that's when it hits you.

"I helped make that kid's day," he says.

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