Lined by rugged cliffs and unbounded desert scenery, the Crooked River below Bowman Dam is one of the most spectacular places to visit on Oregon’s High Desert. It is also one of the most reliable trout fisheries in the region.
Well, at least it used to be.
In 2013, an Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife population survey estimated more than 8,000 redband trout per mile in the 8-mile stretch of the Crooked River below Bowman Dam. This past June, that number was about 350.
It was the lowest number ever recorded in the 17 years ODFW had performed the surveys, according to Tim Porter, assistant district fish biologist for ODFW in Prineville.
The dramatic decrease had significant effects. Suddenly, this past summer, hardly anyone was fishing what was supposed to be one of the most popular locales for fly anglers in all of Central Oregon
“It was like night and day,” says Brett Hodgson, district fish biologist for ODFW in Bend. “A couple years ago it was THE place. It was probably THE most popular fishery in Central Oregon, and people were coming from all over to fish the Crooked. And in just a matter of months, the fish were gone. And when the fish go away, the anglers go away.”
The cause of the decline, according to Porter, was a combination of a low snowpack and low flows last winter released into the Crooked River from Prineville Reservoir. Flows as low as 35 cubic feet per second killed off a high number of fish, Porter says. Too much water had been released the previous spring, according to Hodgson, leaving precious little during the winter months.
Then this past spring, during significant runoff, flows of more than 2,000 cfs saturated fish with nitrogen, killing many more with gas-bubble disease, Porter notes.
“So last year was kind of a double whammy, where we had an extremely low winter and the high spring flows,” Porter says. “A lot of fish died off.”
ODFW has been in discussions with the Bureau of Reclamation, which is responsible for managing flows from Prineville Reservoir, as well as with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and NOAA Fisheries on how best to manage flows to restore the prized redband trout population in the Crooked River.
River flows are first set aside for irrigation needs, and whatever is left over is for the fish, Porter explains.
The start of what might be a significant snowpack this winter is a good sign if the redband trout population on the Crooked River is to recover.
“So far, things are looking pretty good as far as snow and precipitation,” Hodgson says. “The three agencies are aware of how the water management of last year affected fish populations. We have been making our recommendation that while we do need to release some water during the summer months, it’s really critical to maintain a sufficient volume of water in the fish account to allow for positive releases during those winter months to prevent what happened last year. So far, that has been the program.”
Hodgson says ODFW has recommended to the agencies that flows on the Crooked River never drop below 80 cfs, and given the current snowpack and precipitation, he adds, that should not be a problem this winter.
A longtime Central Oregon fish biologist who previously worked in Prineville, Hodgson believes the trout on the Crooked can recover, and it can once again be a blue-ribbon fishery for anglers year-round. He says that getting it back to 8,000 trout per mile in the next few years is a possibility.
“I think redband trout as a species have a pretty high reproductive potential,” Hodgson says. “It’s one of the attributes that, over thousands of years, has been fine-tuned. When conditions are favorable, they can reproduce and bounce back quickly. If we have a couple years of good water, and we learn how to best manage the water in the fish account, I would anticipate the trout population bouncing back pretty quickly.”
Porter adds that the decline in fish, and subsequently in the fishing, has had a negative effect on the Central Oregon economy, especially in Prineville. Even at this time of year, anglers would brave the cold and snow because they knew they could go land some decent-sized rainbows on the Crooked.
“It’s one of the few water bodies around here that’s open during the winter that provides a reasonably good chance of catching a fish,” Porter says. “It’s a very popular river year-round. When the fish aren’t there, the local economy can feel the hit, too.”