Sliding into their Holy Water home

TRAIL — It was a short trip as far as stocking trucks go — just a quick buzz through the Cole Rivers Hatchery gate and up the Rogue River about a quarter-mile to fly-fishers' holiest of trout waters.

But this tiny trek took two years to complete, thanks to the strangest of steelhead stories in the hatchery's 35-year existence.

The release of 2,000 young trout Nov. 12 in the "Holy Water" impoundment beneath Lost Creek Dam marks the final chapter of the hatchery's great steelhead escape story of 2006, which would have been more humorous had it not been so problematic.

A batch of disease-carrying summer steelhead escaped into the hatchery's water system in May 2006, threatening to kill a half-million tiny rainbows before the escapees were finally flushed out of underground pipes more than a month later.

For the ensuing two years, that meant no Cole Rivers Hatchery trout could be stocked upstream of the hatchery's water intake system for fear of re-infecting hatchery ponds with the virus called IHN.

But that purgatory finally has ended, opening the stocking truck's hatch that afternoon so the 4-inch rainbows could slide down a tube and into their Holy Water home, restocking the once-popular fishery here with fresh fins.

"Nothing big, but they should make for some good fish in the spring," says David Pease, the hatchery's assistant manager. "But the important thing is, it's back."

And perhaps the stocking is the next big step toward returning the Holy Water to its glory status among fly-fishers who flocked here for its famed catch-and-release trout fishing.

This decade, however, a series of high winter flows has flushed most of the stocked trout from this eight-tenths-of-a-mile stretch, leaving the waters largely barren.

So the return of fresh fish is seen as another step toward putting the holy back in the Holy Water.

"It's too special a place not to try to get something going there again," says Jim Harleman, a member of the Rogue Flyfishers Association working on restoring the Holy Water.

The stretch became special largely because it served as a receptacle of sorts for the hatchery.

Excess trout — and sometimes even older and bigger brood trout — reared in Cole Rivers ponds were dumped here out of convenience. That left thousands of various-sized trout available in what became Oregon's first fly-fishing-only, catch-and-release fishery for stocked trout.

But the Great Escape put the water in limbo.

On May 3, 2006, 60 adult steelhead escaped from a hatchery holding pen into the bowels of the hatchery's water system.

The fish slipped through a loose stop-log at the pen, then up through a series of pipes and even a partially-closed valve.

For the ensuing seven weeks, these little Steve McQueens scurried inside the hatchery's main water-supply line, eventually burping out at head gates.

The only problem was that the steelhead escaped from a pond known to hold adult fish infected with IHN.

Infectious hematopoietic necrosis is a natural virus passed among fish through water and it was mysteriously prevalent that year among returning adult salmon and steelhead.

It's the scourge of hatcheries because IHN can be deadly to trout and salmon in their infant stages. The steelhead's' escape meant the water system could have been tainted, and was most threatening to the 500,000 infant trout on hand.

Over time, no fish losses were detected from the IHN there. But Cole Rivers had the scarlet letters tattooed to it since.

State policy meant a two-year lapse from when fish from any "hot" IHN hatchery can be stocked in IHN-free waters, especially those upstream of hatcheries.

The Holy Water exists, in part, as Cole Rivers' main water source, so dumping excess fish there was out of the question.

Before the escape, the Holy Water received anywhere from 2,000 to almost 7,000 trout annually from Cole Rivers. After the escape, the impoundment received anywhere from a few hundred to 2,000 small trout, trucked in from Northern or Eastern Oregon hatcheries.

"They still got some fish, just not from us," Pease says.

But that's over now.

With the IHN-free label back on Cole Rivers, Pease had plenty of options for the more than 60,000 excess rainbows left over after its regular batch of 390,000 trout hit area lakes.

About 55,000 excess trout were released last week into Lost Creek Lake, while another 5,000 trout went into Fish Lake.

And the final 2,000 made the short trip into the Holy Water, closing the book on what Pease hopes to be the last IHN story at Cole Rivers.

Unless, of course, another batch of imprisoned steelhead in the confines of Cole Rivers ponds make a break for it.

"That should be it for us and IHN, barring any more incidents like that again," Pease says.

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