By Laura Brown

Triplicate staff writer

Thousands of dead chinook salmon have been washing up along the banks of the Klamath river since Thursday of last week, causing anglers to wonder if low river levels and extremely warm water temperatures are killing the fish.

Fishery experts are not yet willing to make that connection.

andquot;What we're doing right now is investigating,andquot; said George Gilliam, Fishery Program Leader of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. He, along with California Fish and Game and members of the Yurok, Hoopa and Karuk tribes, has been counting fish and collecting data.

So far, only two deceased coho, or silver salmon, listed as andquot;threatenedandquot; under the State and Federal Endangered Species Act, have been discovered.

The dead fish show a high incidence of disease. Symptoms include eroded gills, unusual growth referred to commonly as andquot;gill rot,andquot; and a bloody vent area. Fish near death have been found bloated, listless and bobbing to the surface or being washed downstream.

andquot;For me this is the worst I've seen,andquot; said Larry Hartley, a Klamath resident for five years and a fisherman on the river for 25 years.

andquot;These were bright fish, not dark. They hadn't been in the system that long,andquot; said Hartley as he and his friends began to load up their gear at the old Klamath townsite boat ramp yesterday. Just a few yards away, large lifeless salmon floated on the water's surface.

Upstream, the numbers of dead fish have been staggering. The fish that travel to tributaries such as the Trinity, Scott and Shasta rivers to spawn are dying at Blue Creek, 16 miles upriver.

At Blakes Riffle near Klamath Glen, Lawrence Lazio counted 100 fish within 100 yards. In his hand he carried a list of state representatives that he was making copies of to hand out to other concerned citizens.

andquot;All I'm trying to do is stir up people,andquot; said Lazio talking from his pickup truck in Klamath yesterday. andquot;I'm trying to beat the drums as much as possible to get an answer.andquot;

The Bureau of Reclamation releases water from the Iron Gate Dam downstream into the Klamath River and diverts water from the river into a series of irrigation canals that feed farms and wildlife refuges in the Klamath and Tule Lake basins. The bureau made the decision to significantly reduce flows in the Klamath River this year after two biological opinions stated there was no scientific evidence to prove coho salmon needed higher water to survive.

Currently the water released from the Iron Gate Dam into the river's mainstem is flowing at 760-cubic-feet per second. Last year at this time, the flows were kept at 1,300 cfs in keeping with tribal trust obligations.

The water released from the Iron Gate Reservoir is warm, as much as 72 degrees fahrenheit.

andquot;It's not the kind of water that would be healthy for fish restoration,andquot; said Jeff McCracken of the Bureau of Reclamation. Many argue that releasing more water downstream at the end of summer could actually be detrimental to fish.

The other main source of water for the Klamath is the Trinity River, which experienced fish kills earlier this summer. According to McCracken, the Klamath River is currently flowing at 45 percent of what it would be if left to its natural state without dams or irrigation diversions.

The Yurok tribe has been forming an alliance with environmental groups and fishermen in an effort to bring more water to the river fish.

andquot;We've been pleading with reclamation for several months to please give us more water so these fish would survive,andquot; said Dave Hillemeier, Yurok fisheries biologist. He admits it is too early to blame low water and high temperatures on the fish kill, but doesn't deny that one of the primary problems leading to poor water quality is low water.

andquot;It's hard to put a finger on what exactly it is.andquot;

Although an average year for river water was predicted, 2002 is proving to be a dry year. It follows on the heels of a severe drought in 2001 that forced a cutoff of water to basin farmers.

When new water-flow predictions were made, basin farmers were asked to cut their water use by 10 percent or irrigation water would be cut off. After the bureau released 20,000 acre-feet downriver in June, the allotment was significantly reduced to 660 cfs. Irrigation demands are supposed to stop by mid-October, after harvest season.

McCracken said that the river probably won't see an increase in water until rains begin. He also said that he has yet to hear any word from fishery agencies on the fish kill.

The Yurok Tribe, the largest in California with 4,300 members, has always been a fishing community. Many still depend on the river for sustenance and economic stability.

Paul Van-Mechelen, who subsidizes his family's income by selling smoked salmon, wonders what the health of the river will be like for future generations.

andquot;We can't get it back, but it seems like there could be some kind of give.andquot;