Grant to finance Cowlitz summer steelhead study

By Allen Thomas, Columbian outdoors reporter

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A $140,000 grant will pay to study the recycling of summer steelhead in the lower Cowlitz River this year with an eye toward improving angling in the popular stream.

The Columbia River Salmon and Steelhead Endorsement Advisory Board approved the grant in February. The money comes from the $8.25 fee paid by anglers who fish the Columbia and its tributaries.

Historically, summer steelhead returning to Cowlitz Salmon Hatchery were recycled to the lower river to give sportsmen a second chance.

Recycling ended over the concern that non-native hatchery steelhead might stray into lower Cowlitz tributaries and cause negative effects on the native wild steelhead known to spawn in the streams.

Wolf Dammers, district fish biologist for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, said the money will pay for 60 radio tags and 440 visual tags to be inserted in steelhead captured at Cowlitz Salmon Hatchery.

The tagged fish will be taken to the lower Cowlitz and released. Their movement will be monitored using an array of telemetry stations. Also, a creel sample will check for the harvest of the steelhead in the sport fishery.

Summer steelhead enter the Cowlitz beginning in May and return to the hatchery through early December. Some are used as spawning stock, while the excess go to food banks.

“The results of this study could support the reinitiation of a recycling program to enhance the summer steelhead sport fishery,’’ Dammers said.

The fish are expected to do one of four things: return a second time to the hatchery; get caught by an angler; remain in the lower Cowlitz or a tributary through the spawning period, or leave the Cowlitz before spawning time.

Dammers said radio tagging and fish movement monitoring is being subcontracted to the U.S. Geological Survey Biological Research Station at Willard in Skamania County.

“This USGS group is recognized as having a very high level of expertise in the region in radio-tracking studies dealing with fish movement,’’ he said.

Summer steelhead fishing in the Cowlitz River was about a $3 million business in 2009, supporting 59,000 angler trips and a catch of 7,200 fish.

A large number of guides fish the Cowlitz, helping the economy of Longview, Kelso and Toledo.