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A rainbow trout is tagged at Cole Rivers Hatchery before being released into the Holy Water on the Rogue River. [Mail Tribune / Jamie Lusch]

Trout test in the Holy Water

Trout No. 1748 is sporting some bling and working for Da Man to help settle the question of whether the Rogue River's Holy Water lives up to its name or is simply a pit-stop in purgatory before trout get flushed downriver.

This 16-inch trout with an orange, numbered, spaghetti-like tag attached to its dorsal fin is one of 400 tagged trout released into the Rogue's fly-fishing only section between Lost Creek dam and Cole Rivers Hatchery as part of a new study to determine what rainbows do when they're jettisoned from the fish-stocking truck here.

Data on where, when and how often anglers catch and report these fish will create the first opportunity to gauge survival and growth rates, catch rates and longevity of trout stocked annually in this eight-tenths of a mile stretch of the Rogue, which is Oregon's only catch-and-release trout fishery restricted solely to traditional fly-fishing.

But perhaps most importantly, it will show whether the 2,000 fingerling stocked annually into this impoundment stay there or get swept downstream into the Rogue's salmon and steelhead waters — a key fact that would go a long way toward determining stocking strategies here.

"That's really the rub," says Ryan Battleson, an Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife fish biologist undertaking the experiment. "A common complaint we hear is all the fish stocked there leave the Holy Water. So the thought is, let's get some tagged fish in there and let's see if they're sticking around."

The fish were tagged and released Friday by Battleson with the help of some volunteers from the Medford-based Rogue FlyFishers Association, whose members have a decades-long history of lobbying for the impoundment's unique status and for regular stockings to keep it viable.

Of the fish released are 129 with orange "floy tags" with a distinct number like that of No. 1748, as well as Battleson's telephone number.

New kiosks installed around the impoundment have cards for anglers to fill out if and when these trout are caught. That would provide new data on how well stocked trout contribute to the fishery and for how long.

Another 271 trout sport purple floy tags with no numbers. Collectively they will help determine whether stocked trout stay there or get swept over the bottom dam, either on their own or during high water releases from Lost Creek Lake.

"Theoretically they should be staying there, because no one should be removing any, and they're not migratory like steelhead," Battleson says. "But if folks are catching them downriver, I want to see that tag."

The stocked trout were part of the hatchery's show-fish ponds — the small, circular ponds where kids can hand-feed fish during visits, so this stocking isn't stealing fish from other waterways. Moreover, they are sterile and also have clipped adipose fins, so if they're caught downstream they can legally be kept as part of a fin-clipped trout limit — a rarity because trout aren't stocked in Rogue salmon and steelhead waters.

The fish were all released as close to the dam's base as possible to give them their best shot at staying put.

In its prime throughout the 1990s, the impoundment earned its nickname for its epic fly angling, either while matching its voluptuous bug hatches or stripping leech or woolly bugger patterns year-round. Double-digit catch days of trout 20 inches and longer were common enough to draw excursions of trout bums from Portland to Redding.

Now it's a rarity to draw a half-dozen a day from Ashland.

"It's definitely gone downhill," says Jack Schlotter, a Rogue FlyFishers member who helped with the tagging.

"The fish just aren't there. When they stock those fingerling, the high water or the mergansers get them."

Anglers downstream of the hatchery at times catch fat, thick-shouldered trout with clipped fins and smallish heads while fishing for steelhead. At 12-plus inches, they clearly aren't steelhead smolts.

Many, like Schlotter, believe they are Holy Water washouts.

A retired forester, Schlotter wants data to show him what's happening, or not happening, at the Holy Water. 

"It'll be nice to really know what's going on," he says.

— Reach Mail Tribune reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470 or mfreeman@mailtfribune.com. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MTwriterFreeman.

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