Amid hundreds of trout reeled in Saturday by anglers at Coffenbury Lake, Astoria High School’s trophy stock remained elusive.
Upperclassmen in Lee Cain’s fisheries technology class came in the dead of the night Friday to release 69 rainbow trout tagged with prizes donated by local businesses.
Only nine tagged fish were caught, but the fundraiser, now in its sixth year, drew in 110 fishers and $1,100.
“That pretty much takes care of fisheries technologies materials for the year for experimental research,” Cain said.
Cain runs an aquatics biology program in the Eldon Korpela Applied Science Center above the high school, complete with an attached hatchery rearing up to 30,000 Chinook and 5,000 coho eggs a year for release as juveniles each May into Youngs Bay. The program includes a yearlong fisheries technology course upperclassmen can apply for after completing prerequisites.
Cain’s advanced fisheries students, known as “fish techs,” raise the trout, seek donated prizes from local businesses and staff the derby. The proceeds go to the research projects of next year’s class in a revolving fund.
Astoria graduate Brooke Cross, on a visit home from Western Oregon University, said she woke up at 5:30 a.m. Saturday to be out at the lake by the 7 a.m. start of the derby. After nearly eight hours of trying and a good number of smaller catches, she landed a nearly 2-pound rainbow trout, the only high-value trophy fish caught all day.
Senior Devon Nikkila chalked the lackluster catches up to lethargy from travel and temperature differences. Many of the trout in Saturday’s derby had to be trucked up from hatcheries near Netarts and Hebo to Astoria, after otters invaded the high school’s hatchery and went fishing.
“Come back next week, and you’ll catch a lot of our hatchery fish,” Nikkila said.
Cain’s students spent Friday night seining for the rainbow trout, pulling 69 out and running them one and two at a time in nets to an oxygen-fed tank in the back of a school district truck for delivery to Coffenbury the night before the derby.
As for the fishing, Cain gave more credit to the general unpredictability in the sport. “It’s hard to know why the fish don’t bite,” he said.
The high school’s hatchery receives fish from the Salmon and Trout Enhancement Program. Students also raise batches of rainbow trout for derbies three years out.
Cain said he sees the science center as more research-focused. Each year, he sends his students out into the field to conduct independent research assignments, from Nikkila’s study of microplastics debris in the diets of salmon to Sariah Dieffenbach’s study on the effects of temperature on freshwater snails.
“This class has actually altered my job for the future,” said junior Sofia Ward, who studies the salinity tolerance of local freshwater fish and wants to be a biologist.
Dieffenbach said fisheries technology is the class she looks forward to most at school, a common sentiment in the tight-knit group of students drawn to the hands-on scientific work in nature.
Making the rounds on the lakefront Saturday, Cain kept spotting his former students, back to take part in the derby, some current or studying biologists who started their research in his class.
A graduate from 2013, Mack Hunter makes custom tackle, and was one of nearly 30 businesses to donate a product for the raffle at the end of the derby. Hunter’s tackle helps pay tuition at the University of Oregon, where he studies aquatic biology with a focus on salmon habitat, and hopes to transfer from into the fisheries and wildlife sciences program at Oregon State University.
Down the waterfront Saturday was Brian Alfonse, a 2002 graduate who went on to become a wildlife biologist with the state Department of Fish and Wildlife.
“I didn’t really know what I was doing until I started that program, and that really inspired me to get into fisheries,” Alfonse said, remembering the salmon barbecues the program used to put on to raise money.
He now works in a program to reintroduce chum salmon on the lower Columbia River. On Saturday, he was helping a niece and nephew keep a hold of their poles.
“I feel like I had a science-type mindset,” he said. “I like being able to work outside and work in nature.
“That can be one of the great inspirations, having a great teacher.”