Wisconsin Outdoors
Written by The Journal Times   
Wednesday, 03 January 2007 16:35

Buoyed by a precious fall commodity - rain - the 2006 fall spawning run on the Root River shaped up as a near record. Working at the Root River Steelhead Facility in Lincoln Park, Department of Natural Resources crews processed 12,378 salmon and trout. The work yielded 800,000 coho eggs and 330 Skamania steelhead brood stock for the state's hatchery system.

"We definitely had ideal flows throughout the whole run," said Brad Eggold, supervisor of the Lake Michigan Fisheries Work Unit. "We haven't had too many years like this."

Indeed, many autumns have been dry since the facility opened in 1994. In low flow years like 2003, as few as 636 fish have entered the facility. The record of 13,582 fish was recorded in fall of 2002.

The total in 2006 was comprised of 10,318 chinook salmon, 1,400 coho salmon, 536 Skamania steelhead and 124 brown trout.

Eggold said last year was notable because the rain came in good quantity and, just as importantly, was well spaced throughout September and October. The result was better than average river flows for most of the fall spawning run, providing good access to upstream reaches of the river and allowing the fish to easily enter the holding tanks at the facility.

In dry years many fish stay in the deeper stretches of the river and never enter the Lincoln Park facility.

The Root and other Lake Michigan streams up and down the Wisconsin shore are generally too warm, too silty and too low in oxygen for trout and salmon eggs to hatch and thrive. As a result, most salmonids found today in Lake Michigan are the piscine equivalents of test tube babies. The eggs of the next generation are collected in rivers and nurtured in the controlled environments of hatcheries for up to a year before they can be stocked into rivers.

Eggold said DNR staff began collecting fish in July, when the summer-run Skamania surge up the river during high-water events. Because they are not ripe and eggs and milt can't be collected on site in July, the adult fish (called brood fish) are taken to Kettle Moraine Springs hatchery and held until the next spring.

The main run of fish started in September when large numbers of chinook salmon migrated up the Root. DNR crews passed 95 percent of the chinook upstream to provide opportunities for anglers. The balance was sacrificed for fish health studies.

October saw an influx of coho and brown trout. The coho take last year was below average. At least five years in the last decade more than 2,500 coho have entered the facility, including a record of 7,894 in 1997. The lower coho numbers last year meant Wisconsin fell short of its 1.5 million egg goal.

"We're still hopeful we'll be able to get close to our coho stocking quotas," Eggold said. "We've been able to achieve better survival in the hatchery and, if we that is true again with last year's class, we should be in good shape."

The Root River Steelhead Facility is one of three primary fish and egg collection sites utilized by the DNR to support the Lake Michigan trout and salmon programs. The others are Strawberry Creek in Door County and the Kewaunee River in Kewaunee.

Strawberry Creek serves as the state's primary chinook salmon collection site; it had a good run and met its egg goals last year. Kewaunee is a back-up facility for coho salmon and steelhead.

Eggold said DNR crews worked a total of 25 days last fall at the Root River Steelhead Facility. Now 12 years old, the facility continues to prove its value, according to Eggold.

"It's really nice," Eggold said. "We spend quite a bit of time there and it's as efficient as can be. We can move a lot of fish in a short amount of time."

The $650,000 Lincoln Park facility, which features a 90-foot fish ladder, holding tanks and fish-viewing windows, was built through a cooperative effort of the Racine Salmon Unlimited Foundation, the city of Racine, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the DNR. More than $120,000 was raised by the Racine Salmon Unlimited Foundation; $500,000 was provided through the Federal Sport Fish Restoration Fund.

The storage tanks are supplied with fresh, oxygenated water to help keep fish in good condition. And with the procedures developed over the last 12 years, DNR crews are able to move fish smoothly to minimize stress and return fish to the river in the best possible shape.

The facility also assists with ongoing fish health and fish population studies. last year Sue Marcquenski, DNR fish health specialist, took samples to test for an ominous fish disease - Viral hemorrhagic septicemia (VHSv), a cause of fish kills in Lake Erie and Lake Ontario.

Although no salmon or trout in the Great Lakes have been affected by the virus yet, the department is monitoring a variety of fish in Lake Michigan for signs of the disease.

The fish that entered the facility last fall, however, showed good health in general, said Eggold, and the average weight was higher than last year.

Now closed, the Root River Steelhead Facility will next open in late winter to collect Chambers Creek- and Ganaraska-strain steelhead.
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