GRANTS PASS — Carl Cole looks down at this cache of 2-year-olds in what amounts to a watery playpen in Greens Creek and can't help but feel a little paternal.
Cole and his fellow Middle Rogue Steelheaders have been babysitting these 2,400 hatchery winter steelhead smolts in a makeshift acclimation pond just 20 yards from the where the creek pours into the Rogue River, doing all the sitter's chores short of diaper-changing.
They feed them, check on them and protect them for two weeks before Cole and the steelheaders send them off to face the wild world on their own.
"They're doing great," Cole says. "At first, I didn't know how we were going to do this. But we did, and we're about at the end of it. It's been kind of interesting."
He hopes to see a few of them in two years, with his fishing hooks in their mouths.
Cole is helping to coordinate an experiment to boost the numbers of hatchery winter steelhead caught in the middle Rogue.
By acclimating these 6,500 smolts in two Greens Creek pools just before they head to sea, the fish have a greater chance of not venturing past the middle Rogue and of getting caught by anglers who for the past four decades have seen Rogue hatchery steelhead sprint past Grants Pass.
And it doesn't come at the expense of upper Rogue anglers who target hatchery winter steelhead.
State fish biologists skimmed 10,500 smolts from the underused Applegate River hatchery steelhead program at Cole Rivers Fish Hatchery last month, and two weeks ago they began convincing them that the historically fishless Greens Creek is their real home.
That way the fish won't turn up the Applegate or bolt to the upper Rogue, but instead will hang around Grants Pass for Cole and his fellow middle-Roguers to target.
"In a couple years, they'll probably average 8 pounds," Cole says. "That's why a bunch of people have wanted to help out, take turns feeding them.
"It's one of those feel-good projects, like you're really helping things," Cole says.
The program began last year with about 7,500 smolts in Sand Creek, but that creek washed out and was unusable, leading this year's focus on Greens Creek and nearby Skunk Creek, says Ryan Battleson, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife's Salmon Trout Enhancement Program biologist overseeing the project.
"If we can somehow start turning these creeks into assets," Battleson says, "that would be a huge thing if we can exploit this fishery more."
Used for decades in other Oregon waterways, the acclimation process is designed to corral salmon and steelhead's innate ability to hone in on their home waters when they return as adults.
By moving these hatchery-raised winter steelhead away from Cole Rivers Hatchery for as little as one week just before release, the steelhead will no longer consider the hatchery to be their home waters but instead the tributary where they last lived before heading to sea.
One possible downside of imprinting hatchery steelhead to return to waters other than the hatchery is the potential for them to stray onto wild steelhead spawning grounds. While hatchery winter steelhead stray rates in the Rogue River Basin are considerably lower than the 10 percent threshold under wild fish management policies, Battleson chose Greens Creek and Skunk Creek for acclimation sites because they are considered devoid of wild salmon or steelhead thanks largely to artificial and natural barriers.
At Greens Creek, for instance, a large concrete box culvert dumps water more than six feet into a deep pool just 20 yards from its confluence with the Rogue. Another similar culvert with an even steeper drop is about one-eighth of a mile farther upstream.
Battleson deemed them both good acclimation sites, so he and volunteers anchored a wire-mesh fence across the entire downstream end of the pools. Then Battleson and the volunteers stocked 6,500 of the 8-inch fish in these pools and hand-fed them with hatchery food pellets daily for two weeks before the fences were pulled Wednesday.
"They'll leave on their own when they feel the time is right," Battleson says.
A similar acclimation pond on nearby Skunk Creek washed out last week when high water loaded the fence with debris before it collapsed, sending about 4,000 smolts to the Rogue earlier than intended, Middle Rogue Steelheaders President Cole Tidwell says.
Battleson says he hopes to get two consecutive years of acclimation and releases before he seeks funding to add another fin clip so anglers who catch these steelhead can identify them. If that proves successful, long-term possibilities include expanding the program into other Grants Pass-area creeks with even more hatchery smolts skimmed from the Applegate River releases, Battleson says.
If these Greens Creek smolts hold true to Rogue Basin form, about a third will return this summer as halfpounders, while the bulk of the survivors will show up as 6- to 8-pound adults in early 2019, Battleson says.
But the vast majority of winter steelhead smolts never make it to adulthood, and knowing that he can expect not much better than a 3 percent survival rate dampens Cole's paternal tones when he talks of these fish.
"It's sad when you realize how few come back," Cole says. "But better 300 or 400 more showing up in the Rogue here, and that's more steelhead than we would have seen here. That's good, but it's a lot of work."