When David Noakes asks me if I want to go into the fish trap, I don’t hesitate. Of course! What science writer worth her salt wouldn’t? As I tug on a pair of waders and shrug into a rubberized jacket, I imagine myself getting a brief lesson in fisheries biology — how to net a few salmon, clip a few fins, scrape a few scales — a tranquil tutorial at the Oregon Hatchery Research Center’s annual Fall Festival.
Carefully, I descend the ladder into the concrete cavern that hatchery staff call “the pit,” scanning the surface for hints of fish. But the chilly green waters are opaque, revealing nothing. I can’t even see the bottom of the ladder. It vanishes into the water, which is diverted from Fall Creek. Tentatively, I feel for the last few rungs with my feet. The chill water presses the waders tight against my skin. Finally, I step onto solid concrete.
I’m waist-deep now, still clueless about what’s to come.
The trap is a barrier meant to stop hatchery fish that might aspire to spawn upstream. Only wild salmon and trout — Chinook, Coho, rainbow, cutthroat — are allowed to contribute their genes in the watershed above OHRC, where Noakes leads studies on Northwest fisheries along with scientists from all over the world.
The trap works like a corral. Hatchery manager Joseph O’Neil herds the still-unseen fish into one end of the pit with a moveable, gate-like barrier. After teaching me and fellow novice Doug Brusa of the OSU Foundation how to take fin samples with a paper punch and how to scrape scale samples into little white envelopes, he gives instructions on netting the fish and then climbs over the portable barrier into the trap. He readies himself with a massive net on a long metal pole.
Still, the fish are only hypothetical for me. I haven’t seen one even though I’m told that they’re swimming all around me. So far on this Saturday afternoon in the serenity of the Alsea River Watershed, I’ve eaten a piece of Fall Festival cake (baked at The Thyme Garden, owned by Janet and Rolf Hagen and their daughter, OSU fisheries alumna Bethany), built a birdhouse to take home, watched an American dipper ply the stream with fishlike prowess, and witnessed the glistening backs of several salmon spawning in a pool downstream from the trap. Those shimmering dorsal fins have been the only evidence that fish actually inhabit these waters.
So when O’Neil readies his net, I’m unprepared for what happens next. He scoops it deep beneath the water’s surface and he lifts. As it breaks the surface, a violent thrashing ensues. In the net, a silver-sided salmon the length of a super-cruiser longboard flails and thrashes with astounding power, writhing and flopping and contorting its massive body, water flying across the pit in great splashes into my face, drenching my hair. Reflexively, I back up, startled by the violence of the salmon’s protest.
When the Chinook settles down, O’Neil shows us the telltale blackish lips that distinguish its species. I can see the fish’s teeth, white and sharp. He shows us how to sex the fish by “milking” it for sperm. With his paper punch, he takes three samples from the caudal fin, which I collect from his glove into vials numbered for each fish. Back at the lab, scientists will analyze the samples, along with scales scraped from the fish’s sides, to determine what the fish has eaten and where it has traveled, as well as which genetic stock it originated from.
After the third or fourth fish gets sampled and measured, Noakes — who has been capturing the whole experience on his camera — tells O’Neil to hand me a Chinook. I hold out my arms and, as the 20-pounder settles against my chest, I look up at Noakes with a tentative smile. It’s dreamlike, holding this fish whose travels have taken it far out to sea and back to this place, at this moment.
After seven or eight massive fish have been sampled and released to spawn upstream, I’m getting chilled. I climb out and give my waders to an OSU student who wants a chance in the pit. By the time Doug Brusa finishes his stint, his hands are trembling with the cold. Turns out he had a leak in his waders and is soaked to the skin.
As I drive home along the creek, I think about the salmon that return to these waters in their urgent drive to survive another generation. I look at the late sun glinting on the surface and imagine the life struggling beneath, fighting to sustain itself yet another season, another year.
I’ve held it in my arms.