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Hatch and release: Tokul Creek Hatchery prepares to rear new generation of steelhead

Tokul Creek Hatchery Manager Darin Combs stands over the hatchery’s big pond, where some 200,000 winter steelhead fry will spend the winter. The demand feeder in front of him dispenses food into the pond whenever a fish hits the cord on it. The one-ounce fish will triple in size before being released next May. - Carol Ladwig/Staff Photo
Tokul Creek Hatchery Manager Darin Combs stands over the hatchery’s big pond, where some 200,000 winter steelhead fry will spend the winter. The demand feeder in front of him dispenses food into the pond whenever a fish hits the cord on it. The one-ounce fish will triple in size before being released next May.
— image credit: Carol Ladwig/Staff Photo

There's an expectant feel at Tokul Creek Hatchery. The secluded operation just downstream from Snoqualmie Falls on State Route 202, is probably at its quietest this time of year, with no fish eggs waiting to hatch, and only a few buckets' worth of fry waiting to be planted in area lakes.

It's almost literally a pregnant pause for the three-person hatchery, awaiting the start of the busy winter steelhead spawn later this month.

Soon, hundreds of the fish will be powering up the Snoqualmie River, then Tokul Creek, following the familiar scent of their birthplace.

Hundreds of fisherman will stake out these waters for a chance at catching the famously elusive fish. Hatchery staff, meanwhile, will be waiting for the steelhead to arrive at their final stop, a terminal trapping pond, and recruiting help from volunteers and local Department of Fish and Wildlife enforcement officers for a “spawn day.”

Not for the faint of heart, spawn days are weekly collections of returning male and female steelhead for the harvest and fertilization of their eggs. There’s a lot of getting wet, dirty and cold on the job. The work can go on for weeks or months, until the steelhead stop running, and the workers don’t even see results for nearly two months after it’s done.

Still, it’s a perk of the job, according to Tokul Creek Manager Darin Combs.

“It’s fun, but it’s cold," he said. "It can be really challenging when it’s below freezing and you’re trying not to have the eggs freeze in the buckets.

“But I think, for everyone, that’s probably their favorite time, spawning, even though it’s freezing cold and wet,” Combs added.

After collection, the staff members mix the eggs and milt together at the hatchery, place the eggs in perforated nesting boxes, and place the boxes in narrow troughs, in the flow of spring water.

“We have an awesome water source, it comes right off the hill, right out of the ground, and that’s the water that we run through the incubation room,” Combs said.

The rest of the hatchery operations are fed entirely by gravity and the flow of the Tokul Creek, but this spring water is used for the eggs, because it’s free of the pathogens in the local watershed, as well as any from where the eggs might be shipped.

Fish cycle

Unlike their salmon relatives, steelhead don’t necessarily die after spawning in the wild, but in the hatchery process, the fish are killed if they make it all the way up to the hatchery trapping pond. Most are caught on the way upstream, by design.

“If you go down on the river or the creek during that time, you’ll see a lot of people fishing, a lot of people,” Combs said. “That’s really why we’re here, to create an opportunity, and one of the better winter steelhead fisheries in the Puget Sound area.”

The hatchery usually sees close to 900 steelhead return each year, although the count has been as low as 300. Any fish not harvested for eggs are captured and donated to the local food banks, Combs said, and some are also given to the Snoqualmie Tribe. He’s glad to do it.

“We get the fish we need for the program, and everything else gets caught,” he said.

Any hatchery fish that escape the traps and fishing lines could live another year, potentially even returning  to the ocean, Combs said. They certainly would compete for survival with the few wild steelhead left in the Snoqualmie.

Unpopular decision

That concern was at the heart of a 2008 proposal to close down the Tokul Creek Hatchery that drew significant public response. Dozens of people attended public hearings demanding to see the science behind the idea from the hatcheries department.

"I think the department realized after some public meetings were held, that it was a very unpopular decision to close this hatchery, so they came up with a compromise… to appease the public, but also to reduce our program,” Combs said.

Egg harvests into and egg shipments from the Tokul Creek Hatchery were reduced, and all planting of hatchery fish in the Raging and Tolt Rivers was stopped. Through a selective breeding program, the hatchery also began producing steelhead that returned to spawn earlier in the season. By the time wild steelhead return to their spawning grounds in February and March next year, the hatchery steelhead run will be long done.

In fact by then, many of the harvested eggs will be tiny fry, crowding the incubator troughs. When the last of the eggs hatch, each trough contains about 20,000 fry to be transferred to the “raceways,” a series of long narrow ponds, about three and a half feet deep.

Here, the fry will spend the summer, eating and growing. In July, when each fish is about three inches long, they are marked as hatchery fish, by having their adipose (back) fins clipped.

Around September, the fish are moved into their last home before being released into the wild, a huge pond, six feet deep, and stocked with demand feeders. To eat, a fish just has to push on a string to the feeder, and food will drop into the water.

From September to May, the fry will roughly triple in size, and some will learn about predators, specifically otters.

Although both the raceways and the main pond are covered with netting to prevent aerial hunters, Combs said there’s not much he can do about the otters who occasionally find good hunting in the pond.

“My best solution is to put enough fish out in the pond that even if the otters get in there and eat, we still make our 150,000,” Combs said.

That’s the target number of steelhead the hatchery plans to release each year in May.

Tokul Creek Hatchery also raises and releases rainbow trout – the freshwater version of a winter steelhead – each year for the state fishing opener.  A total of 30,000  trout are planted in area lakes (Rattlesnake and Alice, for example) in the spring, plus Tokul Creek Hatchery stocks alpine lakes each fall with rainbow, cutthroat, and golden trout fry.

“Basically, most of those fish are put in backpacks, in jugs of water, and hiked into those lakes to be planted,” Combs said. Volunteers from the Trailblazers sportsmen’s club plant the fish each year for this High Lakes program.

Right now, only a few of the High Lakes trout remain in the incubator, and Combs is focused on other parts of his hatchery. The live-in staff do all of the hatchery’s maintenance work, and are on-call for emergencies like flooding, Combs’ biggest concern for the moment. He estimates the hatchery needs almost $4 million worth of repairs to its intake system and the diversion dam that routes Tokul Creek water through the hatchery, and every flood causes more damage to the equipment.

As he is giving a tour of the intake, a fat female salmon starts digging in the gravel near the dam. There’s no ladder for her—it’s one of the improvements Combs hopes will be a part of dam repairs—so she seems to be starting a nest. She hasn’t given up yet, though, and with a splash, she flashes forward against the current.

Like everyone else at the hatchery, she knows another cycle is about to start.

• Learn more about the state hatchery program at http://wdfw.wa.gov/hatcheries/

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