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Steelhead anglers across the Pacific Northwest have likely already heard of the John Day River. With its headwaters on the western slopes of the Blue Mountains in Northeast Oregon, the John Day flows approximately 284 miles before emptying into the Columbia River upstream from the Columbia Gorge. The John Day is the longest undammed river in Oregon, and the third longest undammed river in the continental United States. It’s also home to ESA-listed steelhead.

The John Day Steelhead Project is raising funds for a collaborative research project between the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, graduate students at Oregon State University, the Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board, and other partners seeking to better understand John Day steelhead migration patterns and how Columbia River dams may be impacting the health and abundance of these fish.

Read more about the research below, then checkout our crowdfunding thank-you packages which include the opportunity to adopt one of the fish tagged during this research and track its movement up and down the Columbia, limited edition John Day Steelhead Project t-shirts, hand tied flies from Wild Steelhead Initiative Manager Dean Finnerty, and your chance to win a trip with staff from Wild Steelheaders United at an upcoming staff retreat on the Olympic Peninsula, where you’ll spend two days and one night fishing and telling stories around the campfire with the WSU crew. Dates are TBD.

Research

The John Day River supports the most robust population of wild steelhead in the Columbia River basin. Despite its relative health, preliminary data suggests about 60% of the adults each year migrate past the mouth of the John Day River and go upstream past McNary Dam (74 miles upstream).

Some fish are traveling over a hundred miles and passing dams on the Snake River. Those fish must then swim back downstream and pass-over the dams again. The travel distance, stress and other potential factors could be reducing the reproductive fitness of adults that over-shoot the mouth of the John Day and migrate upstream past dams.

This study will implant adult steelhead at Bonneville with acoustic tags that can track the movements of adult steelhead and get a rigorous estimate of how many steelhead are passing by the John Day, how many return back to spawn in the John Day, and whether or not those fish reach the spawning grounds. This information will allow managers to determine the extent of the problem and then they will try to devise solutions.

Questions to be answered:
1. What proportion of steelhead continue migrating upstream past McNary and other dams?
2. How long do those steelhead remain up there?
3. What proportion fall back downstream and return to the John Day?
4. What proportion of those fish ultimately reach the spawning grounds?
Implications: Answers to these questions will provide information that is critical to managing wild steelhead in the John Day and will help managers determine what actions need to be taken to remedy the behavior and improve resilience of the population.

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