More than 1,500 steelhead are expected to return this spring to the Pahsimeroi Fish Hatchery, where they hatched, to be harvested for the next generation.

“I’m reluctant to say a high or a low end,” said hatchery Manager Doug Engemann. “The lowest steelhead run we’ve had was 800; the highest was 13,000.”

Hatchery employees use a weir — a gate that blocks fish as they travel the river — to trap the steelhead and guide them into pens. They will be separated by gender in the pens and the males will be milked for the milt and females harvested for their eggs. Harvesting the eggs requires the females be killed and sliced opened, maximizing the numbers of eggs that can be retrieved.

“I take care not to cause any undue pain,” said Engemann after he pointed out female steelhead die naturally after they produce their eggs.

The eggs are fertilized with milt, which is semen produced by male steelhead. Engemann said it is not necessary to kill the male after milking it because they can be milked several times.

The eggs and milt are poured into a bucket with a cup of water, swirled around, sit for about 10 minutes and then take an iodine bath for 60 minutes. The process fertilizes and cleans the eggs, reducing the risk of disease. Because of the high number of fish in one location, disease such as salmon bacterial kidney disease can spread quickly. Engemann said hatcheries reduce that risk by incorporating the iodine bath in the fertilization process.

“We take every precaution to pre-empt disease,” said Engemann.

This process occurs at the lower hatchery, but once the eggs have been fertilized and begin to eye, which means the embryo’s eyes are visible through the egg, they are taken to the Upper Pahsimeroi Hatchery. It is there they are kept in chilled water tanks till it’s time for them to hatch.

“We’re literally creating life,” said Engemann. “I’ve always appreciated that.”

Engemann said his and his staff’s goal is to make their broodstock levels for the season. He said a large part of why they work hard to meet their goal is to supply anglers with the opportunities to engage in recreation. He said as public servants they work for the people, and he said the people want salmon and steelhead in the rivers.

“They’re not my fish, they’re everyone’s fish,” said Engemann.