By Christian Hill
From mid-May through June each year, McKenzie River fishing guide Jarrod Kelso is making money while having the time of his life.
For $200 per person, Kelso, a 35-year-old Eugene resident, takes clients out on the water for a day of the best fishing the McKenzie River has to offer. The run of spring chinook salmon is at its peak, and his clients are looking for a good fight and a load of salmon meat to grill and smoke.
On some days, Kelso said, “It’s Alaska lite.”
Kelso estimated he makes about half his annual salary guiding on the McKenzie River during this period; he schedules 45 to 60 trips from mid-May through July. He leads fishing trips on other Oregon rivers to make money during the rest of the year.
The lifeblood of Kelso’s McKenzie River work are salmon that are bred in and released from a state hatchery. It’s illegal to kill wild salmon, but it’s is legal to take the hatchery-bred fish, which the state marks by a clipped fin. And the state hatchery ensures there are plenty of hatchery salmon in the river.
Kelso and other fishing guides say reducing the number of hatchery-raised spring chinook salmon released into the McKenzie River would damage their businesses.
Concerned about the survival of the wild spring chinook salmon runs, two flyfishing advocacy groups, McKenzie Flyfishers and the Steamboaters, filed a lawsuit earlier this month in U.S. District Court in Eugene asking a judge to order that the state sharply reduce the number of hatchery salmon it releases into the McKenzie.
“If I would lose that, it would be a heartbreak to my family,” Kelso said.
The plaintiffs claim the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers are violating the federal Endangered Species Act by failing to take measures to prevent the crossbreeding of wild and hatchery spring chinook salmon in the McKenzie River.
By limiting the release of six-inch hatchery smolts reared at the McKenzie Hatchery to 100,000, the plaintiffs said, the state would reduce the competition for food and habitat between wild and hatchery salmon and help the wild salmon in their recovery. Wild spring chinook salmon received federal protection under the Endangered Species Act. The state agency operates the hatchery, and the federal agency provides funding, with the aim of compensating for the harm that dams cause to salmon. Neither agency has commented on the issue, citing the pending lawsuit.