DALLAS -- Twenty-seven wild coho salmon had a chance to do something this year that no salmon has done in six decades.
They were able to swim and spawn in waters above the city of Dallas dam on Rickreall Creek, thanks to a trap and release program that began this fall.
"This is the first time there has been wild salmon up there in a long time," said Jason Dunkin, a member of the Rickreall Watershed Council.
Dallas' dam creating the reservoir that supplies water to the city has been blocking fish from swimming to areas of Rickreall Creek and other streams above the structure since it was built in 1949.
Standing at the top of the dam looking down, it's easy to see why. There's a 20-foot sheer drop and another at least 75 feet of steep waterfalls making the spillway. The incline is the only way over the dam and it's impossible for the fish.
"Unless they can put on their boots and hike up, there's no way for them to make it," said Kenn Carter, the city's assistant Public Works director.
Outgoing juvenile salmon will be able to make their way down the spillway, he added.
Installation of the dam and a number of other activities in the creek over the years, such as gravel mining, has removed much of the gravel suitable for spawning below the dam.
The answer to the salmons' predicament is to trap, haul and release them to better habitat areas above the dam.
The program is a partnership between the city of Dallas, the Polk County Sportmen's Club, the Rickreall Watershed Council and Forest Capital Partners, the owner of the property around the trap and dam. An agreement between the parties was established in October. The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife gave its stamp of approval to the program in late-October, said Charles Redon, coordinator of the Rickreall Watershed Council.
A trap, or weir, made of metal bars poking out of the stream bed was constructed near the base of the dam this fall. The trap acted as a one-way gate that closes off a small pool of water. Carter said the salmon keep trying to swim upstream and can't see how to get out.
So far this year, 27 fish -- 20 males and seven females -- were caught and transported. Dunkin, also a member of the Polk County Sportmen's Club and the designated fish driver, said he hopes to see a few more fish in the trap this season.
Record numbers of coho were counted going over Willamette Falls on the Willamette River between Oregon City and West Linn, so the members of the Rickreall Watershed Council thought this would be a good year to begin the program.
A few spawning pairs were spotted below the dam this year and the council has plans to re-create even more suitable habitat in the lower creeks. Redon hopes combining the trap-and-release program with habitat restoration below the dam will help salmon returning to the area.
"This would bolster population, making better habitat available," Redon said.
Coho are not native to Rickreall Creek, but were introduced in the 1960s. The fish making their way up the stream now are descendants of those fish.
For years, fears that non-native coho would compete with endangered winter steelhead trout nixed any plans to bolster coho populations, Redon said. More recent research shows the two species are in the rivers and creeks at different times of year, opening the door to programs supporting coho.
Area police agencies and members of the council and sportmen's club monitor the trap often. Carter added at the spawning stage, salmon aren't appetizing.
"These fish are not fresh," he said. "They are spawning and dying."
Once the run is over, the weir will be taken down. Each party involved will review the program annually to decide whether it should continue.