F&G volunteer says Chinook once populated Weiser River

Clarence Stark volunteers his time at the Rapids River Fish Hatchery near Riggins helping to preserve the Chinook salmon’s cycle of life and their survival. Stark is pictured above sorting the males from the females. He checks to see if the female is ready to spawn and if so puts her into a spawning basket in the water. The rest go into a pen until the next sort. As of Sept. 6, 2,674 Chinook salmon were trapped at the hatchery with 1,400 females reaching the hatchery.
Philip A. Janquart
The Columbia is the largest river in the Pacific Northwest.
 It serves as a boundary for much of southern Washington and northern Oregon, the roughly 270-mile stretch trafficked by sturdy, diesel tugs pushing barges filled with goods into America’s interior and others sending them out across the ocean.
 Under the water’s surface is a less observed yet equally thriving highway where salmon swim in either direction, depending on their given stage in a short and turbulent lifespan.
 Guided by a primitive instinct and an internal navigation system nobody quite fully understands, the fish eventually depart the Columbia, utilizing a variety of waterways, including the Salmon, Clearwater, and Snake rivers, to return to a place in the mountains where they started out as hatchlings and will now spawn. 
 When it’s over, lethargic and exhausted from the six-to nine-hundred-mile upstream journey, they seek out a slow section of water where they look for rest, but die, becoming a food source – easy pickings for natural predators like eagles and Kingfishers, or bear. Flies, insects, and all manner of undulating and crawling things join them at the table.
 The little eggs the females leave behind eventually break open and from them emerge tiny new salmon, young and strong, eventually swimming west toward the Pacific, repeating the cycle of life.
 “When I first moved here in the '70s, talking to the old-timers that used to fish, they (Chinook salmon) would come right up the Weiser River,” said Clarence Stark, a local resident and retired businessman and professional photographer who volunteers his time at the Rapid River Fish Hatchery near Riggins.
 Located a couple of hours away, up Highway 95 from Weiser, the hatchery plays a critical role in helping to preserve that cycle of life. As of Sept. 6, the Rapid River Hatchery had trapped 2,674 Chinook salmon, according to Idaho Fish and Game’s official website, making it one of the most successful hatcheries in the region.
 The process that occurs there is a necessary component to the species’ survival considering the Columbia, and other rivers, is harnessed by hydroelectric dams that generate power for millions of users.
 Fish once freely navigated the waterway, but now must utilize fish ladders to get past the dams.
 Of course, there has been an abundance of controversy over the decades in that regard.
 “I could argue both sides of that all day,” said Stark who says that regardless of what side you take, the reality is that the fish population needs help and that he wants to be a part of the process.
 “The spawn takes place every year; the current batch will be released next spring,” he explained. “They start out at Rapid River and then go into the Little Salmon River, the main Salmon, the Snake, the Columbia, and out to the ocean. When they come back, which is anywhere from one to three years, they swim back up and turn to go up Rapid River. The hatchery is about two miles from where they turn off and every fish that makes it that far goes into a trap and they are all caught.”
 Native fish are transported above the hatchery where they are put back into the river and, from there, are on their own.
 Hatchery fish, however, are put into a netted holding pen, a process that occurs starting in May. The Rapid River Hatchery exclusively produces Chinook salmon, according to Stark.
 “It’s actually pretty easy to tell the difference between a hatchery fish and a native,” he said. “If the adipose fin is clipped, it’s a hatchery fish.”
 The adipose fin is smaller than, and located behind, the dorsal fin on the Chinook’s spine.
 After the hatchery fish are separated and put into holding pens, they are sorted by sex. 
 This is the process in which Stark lends a hand.
 “We literally reach in with our hands and grab them, take them out, and sort them,” he said. “If they are female and ready to spawn, they go into a basket-type thing in the water and if they’re not, they go back over the fence, so to speak, into the pen until the next sort, which is on Mondays and Thursdays. They had 1,400 females this year with an annual goal of 1,200, but when you consider the millions of fry released, that number is pretty small.”
 The spawn-ready females are dispatched using what Stark describes as a “thumper,” which conks the fish on the head, killing it instantly. They are tagged and a DNA sample is taken to keep track of the parents. A viral test is also performed. 
 The eggs are then extracted and put into five-gallon buckets, but those that come from fish with viral conditions are destroyed.
 The viable eggs are sterilized with an iodine solution to kill any viruses that may be present and then put into trays.
 “The eggs they captured this year are now in the incubator and they are going to start hatching pretty soon,” Stark said. “Each Chinook will produce anywhere between 3,500 and 5,000 eggs and about two months into that, they start hatching. It takes about five months in the incubator for the eggs to fully hatch.”
 After they are hatched, the tiny fish stay put for about three months, feeding off nutrients from their yolk sacks.
 “By January and February, all of that yolk sack has been re-absorbed into their abdomen and the juvenile Chinook, now known as fry, are transferred to indoor or outdoor tanks where they start on food,” Stark said.
 The fry, about two- to three-inches long, eventually wiggle and writhe through a machine that clips the adipose fin, identifying it as a hatchery fish. 
 “They are going to put, probably, four million eggs into the system,” Stark said. “There is also a process where some of the fish get a coded microchip. They can track them as they go through the dams on their way to the ocean. The dams have sensors and register that the fish has gone through the dam and also when they come back.”
 The number of fish that return can vary drastically from year to year.
 Stark says he loves working with Idaho Fish and Game.
 “Oh, it’s fascinating,” he said. “They need about half a dozen volunteers twice a week for about four or five weeks.”
 The process was completed in September and Stark expects to be back at the hatchery sometime in August 2024 to do it all over again.
 “I used to be very proud of my grip: there wasn’t any fish that was going to get away from me, but they can hurt your wrist,” he said. “You grab one, pull it up to check it, but if that fish doesn’t want to … well, not only are they slippery, all they have to do is twist a couple times and then my wrist fails me and it’s, like, ‘Ok, let him go.’ I’ve seen 20 to 25 pounders, and even one, I think, was about 30 pounds, a big male.”
 He noted that the hatchery is open to the public.
 “They have a great group of people up there and visitors are always welcome,” he said. “They have hours posted and it’s really fun to watch them when they are feeding.”
 Visit https://idfg.idaho.gov/visit/hatchery for more information.


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