Upper Mill Creek, A South Yamhill Tributary PHOTO: Andrew Chione

Born and raised in Illinois, Andrew now lives in Newberg, Oregon. He is studying Fisheries and Wildlife Science at Oregon State University. In his spare time, he explores Oregon’s Cascade and Coast Range creeks with a mask and snorkel. Follow him on Instagram @coldwater_lifestyle.

The Yamhill River winds from the Oregon Coast Range to its confluence with the Willamette River. The river passes vineyards, hazelnut orchards, and pastures and runs through the cities of Grande Ronde, Willamina, Sheridan, and McMinnville. From Highway 18, on their way to the coast, most people see the muddy, slow-flowing side of the Yamhill, where the river is flanked by gnarled oaks and surrounded by a pastoral patchwork of farmland. Oregon’s salmon and steelhead rivers often conjure images of temperate rainforests, desert canyons and snow-capped peaks. What could be special about the lazy Yamhill River valley?

Besides the farmers who irrigate their crops with the Yamhill and the small towns who get their drinking water from it, the river also supports runs of coho salmon, winter steelhead and a robust population of coastal cutthroat trout. Coho are not native to the watershed. They were planted there by Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife starting in the 1960s. The state discontinued the program in the 1980s, but a run still returns every year.

Winter steelhead, on the other hand, are native to the Yamhill. ODFW introduced hatchery steelhead from the 1960s to the 1980s. Just a few steelhead return each winter, but they are still there. The Yamhill River steelhead, along with other wild steelhead in the Willamette system are protected by the Endangered Species Act. It’s illegal to fish for them, but spotting these rare fish leaping a waterfall or digging a redd is always a thrill.

The watershed also supports native suckers, northern pikeminnow, redside shiners, and dace. Local anglers are especially fond of the Yamhill’s coastal cutthroat trout. You can find these feisty fish in most streams in western Oregon. They strike ferociously and leap wildly when hooked. My first Oregon trout was a Yamhill cutthroat, as was my second, third and maybe a few more.

Coastal cutthroat trout are listed as a species of concern at both the state and federal levels. Like most native species, they are sensitive to pollution and habitat degradation. As the most abundant salmonid in the Yamhill, they are used as an indicator species to assess habitat quality and determine locations for future restoration projects. The current ODFW regulations allow anglers to harvest two wild trout per day from May 22 to October 31. Few things in life are more satisfying than eating fresh trout by a river, but I rarely keep them. I have seen a lot of the watershed through a mask and snorkel; keepers aren’t as abundant as I would like to think.

Every spring for the last few years ODFW stocks the Yamhill River with 2000 hatchery rainbow trout. With a healthy population of wild cutthroat, the stocking seems superfluous at best. I’m especially concerned about the effects of competition between unnaturally aggressive hatchery fish and juvenile steelhead that rear in the Yamhill. ODFW does its best to stock after the typical juvenile steelhead begins its downstream migration, but every year I see them in lower Willamina Creek after the stocking date. And every year, anglers I know catch hatchery rainbows out of the same stretches of river as juvenile steelhead. I don’t target the hatchery rainbows because there is already good cutthroat fishing. Why would I fish for hatchery trout, when there are wild cutthroat around? Most of the anglers I know who fish the Yamhill feel the same way.

If ODFW stopped stocking the Yamhill, there would still be plenty of opportunity for anglers in the area. In Sheridan, the local pond is stocked with thousands of trout each year. Sheridan Pond is easy to access, comfortable for families, and the town hosts an annual fishing derby. ODFW should be applauded for this program. Not only does it offer a chance to catch and keep a few trout without having to trespass or bushwhack through blackberry and poison oak, it also reduces the risk of hatchery trout competing with wild cutthroat and juvenile steelhead. If wild trout don’t need to compete with hatchery trout, we can have the best of both worlds.

Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife has agreed to host a town hall meeting this spring in Yamhill County to discuss the future of the Yamhill River stocking program. We will need you to speak up for endangered Willamette steelhead and native cutthroat by telling ODFW to stop stocking the Yamhill River with hatchery trout. Please keep an eye out for details at nativefishsociety.org.

NEW RIVER STEWARDS

Andrew Chione, Yamhill River

Peter Donahower, Fifteenmile Creek

Chris Johnson, Nooksack River

Terre Rogers, Molalla River

Jason Small, Tributaries of South Puget Sound

David Thomas, McKenzie River

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