By Andy Martin
SMITH RIVER Next time you catch a big Chinook or a chrome-bright winter steelhead from the Smith River, chances are you can thank the efforts of Rowdy Creek Hatchery for the river's healthy fish runs.
Unlike most hatcheries on the West Coast, Rowdy Creek is a private, non-profit hatchery. Donations keep the hatchery in operation, allowing it to raise thousands of salmon and steelhead to supplement fisheries in the river and in the ocean.
The hatchery fish that return to the Smith after migrating to the ocean to mature do two things. They provide more opportunities for anglers to catch fish, and also take pressure off wild fish since many of the salmon and steelhead anglers keep were hatched and raised for their first year at the hatchery.
The first salmon of the year returned to Rowdy Creek Hatchery a little more than a week ago. Hatchery manager Andrew Van Scoyk expects a major push of fish to arrive just as the river begins to drop following the next really big rain.
Hatchery workers will then be busy taking salmon from the trap to holding ponds. They need to collect approximately 60 hens and 60 bucks to raise the 225,000 salmon that will be released next year.
As those salmon grow in the ocean, they provide more fish for sport and commercial fishermen to catch. Then, once they reach four and five years old, they will return to the Smith, providing many of the salmon that are caught in the lower river each fall.
Later this season, steelhead will begin to show up at the hatchery, which releases 100,000 steelhead smolts each year.
The Smith has California's healthiest winter steelhead run, thanks in large part to Rowdy Creek.
To continue to raise salmon and steelhead for the Smith River, the hatchery needs help from the public.
Much of the money raised to fund the hatchery comes from several derbies organized by Friends of Cal-Ore Fish. Guides donate their time and the money participants pay to fish is donated to enhancement programs in Del Norte and Curry counties, including Rowdy Creek Hatchery. Information about the derbies is available at www.cal-orefish.org.
But corporate and individual donations also are needed. Costs to operate the hatchery continue to rise. For example, for years the power company donated electricity to the hatchery, which uses quite a bit of juice to run its pumps and other equipment. This summer, the hatchery found out it is now going to have to pay for its power, which runs about $2,500 a month.
Rowdy Creek Hatchery helps fuel the tourism economy in Del Norte County. The Smith is one of the West Coast's premier steelhead rivers, drawing people from all over the world. Visiting anglers spend money at numerous businesses when they come. Someone who books a guided fishing trip often spend the night in a local motel the night before they fish and the next night as well. They eat several meals in local restaurants, go to grocery stores to buy lunch and beverages, fill up their cars with gas before heading home, and often visit local shops to buys gifts from the area.
Without the fish raised at Rowdy Creek Hatchery, there would be much more pressure on the Smith River's wild fish, and angling opportunities would likely suffer, along with the substantial contribution sport fishing generates for Del Norte County's economy.
Visit the hatchery's Web site at www.rowdycreek.com or stop by the hatchery to learn more. Free tours are given daily.