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Noel Cole’s Effort to Raise Steelhead Has Earned Him State Landowner of the Year Honor
Originally published by Sam Bakotich of The Daily Chronicle – date unknown
Knock on Noel Cole’s door nearly any day in the winter and early spring, and you can bet he’ll be there.
It’s not that Cole’s a homebody, it’s because he’s host to about 11,000 guest that require a lot of attention.
For the past 28 years, Cole has basically given up any plans for the winter and early spring to tend to 11,000 juvenile steelhead at a rearing pond on his property in South Chehalis near the Newaukum River.
No matter what did of nasty weather, Cole, the retired manager of Yard Birds in Chehalis, goes out to hand feed the steelhead three times a day, seven day per week, for about 105 days until they reachsmolt stage. Then, in early May, the steelhead are set free into the North Fork of the Newaukum River. To date, Cole has raised more than 300,000 steelhead, devoting about 6,000 volunteer hours.
And for his largely thankless effort, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife has recently presented Cole its Landowner of the Year Award. “Nobody deserves the recognition and more,” Ron Holtcamp of the Olympia Chapter of Trout Unlimited. Holtcamp, and Trout Unlimited, has helped Cole manage the pond for the past 10 years. “You don’t find people that committed, with that much love for the environment and fish, to do what Noel has done. It’s a tremendous commitment on his part to be there and watch over those fish all those years. The winter weather is far from the best here, but Noel is out there faithfully, every day, taking care of those fish.”
Why on Earth would Cole make such a commitment? “It’s been a fun project,” Cole said. “It’s helped build the steelhead run back up on the Newaukum. It’s a lot of work, but I enjoy it. And it’s fun to see the fishermen catch the fish. They catch them all the way up to our intake area.”
Each January, the WDFW delivers nearly 11,000 juvenile steelhead to Cole’s pond, which is filled with water from the Newaukum. He feeds and tends to them until their release in May. It’s not all fun and games. When the river floods, it plugs up the screens and pumps. The pumps need to run 24 hours a day to supply the fish with oxygen. Now, the river has created some problems. “Mother Nature has decided to put a gravel bar where on of our two intaks is,” Cole said. “Every time we have high water, we have to dig it out or use an emergency pump. That’s something we need to address”. So far it’s been worth it. The return on the steelhead is about 9 percent, which is reportedly very good, and the WDFW has noted that over the 28 years there has not been one instance of disease detected among these reared fish.
Who benefits from Cole’s long volunteer hours? Quinalt and Chehalis tribal fishers, along with recreational fishermen in the Newaukum and Chehalis river systems.
Returning fish have ample spawning opportunities throughout the North Fork drainage. And, having the use of Cole’s property allows the WDFW to expand its rearing abilities and have the fish adapt to a more natural rearing environment before beginning their migrations journey.
After the fish are gone, the earthen pond is drained and work parties scrape, remove fish wastes and sand and re-contour the pond. Then the pond is refilled and the WDFW stock it with rainbow trout. After that, groups with limited abilities are allowed to fish for free on the pond. Trout Unlimited volunteers from Olympia assist the people in fishing and cleaning their catch that day.
Terry Turner, a past president of Trout Unlimited in Olympia said Cole is indeed a special person. “He’s one of those rare individuals who believe in the environment and fish and he’s dedicated his life to that for nearly 30 years.” Turner said.
Holtcamp said Cole’s situation is not common. “You can maybe count on one hand the number of landowners who have done this, and maybe none who have done it as long as Noel,” said Holtcamp.
Cole said one of the most fun parts of the rearing process is when it comes time to let the smolts go. “They let you know,” he said with a laugh. “Seriously, when they want to go to the ocean, they spin ’round and ’round and get into a big ball … and you know they’re ready.”
As for hand feeding, Cole said he didn’t always use to do it that way. “I used to have demand feeders in the pond, but the fish hot too smart,” he said. “They figured it out, and worked it so the feeder was on all the time.
Cole grew up in Missouri and wound up in Washington at Fort Lewis with the Army in 1945. He began working for Yard Birds in 1952 and retired from there in 1989. He may not keep up the steelhead project much longer, but he’ll always keep the pond open for the special fishing sessions. “It’s been a great project,” he said. “I’ve had a lot of fun and the (steelhead) fishery has improved, so I guess it’s been worth all the work.”
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