STRONG — Ernie Hilton doesn’t fish.
But on Thursday morning, the Starks man and his neighbor, Dennis Yodsnukis, and more than a dozen volunteers and state Marine Resources staff did the jobs of female Atlantic salmon.
They used low-tech equipment, duct tape and Yankee ingenuity to bury 300,000 eggs under the cobblestone gravel of the Sandy River.
They plan to bury 900,000 eggs in the river bottom by next week, said Paul Christman, the Atlantic salmon biologist for southern central Maine.
It will be the most they’ve placed since the restoration pilot project began in 2010.
“The ultimate goal is certainly restoration, to have a self-sustaining population on the Kennebec,” Christman said.
The eggs are from the Green Lake National Fish Hatchery in Ellsworth. They are F2 Penobscot River strain, which means they’re second-generation salmon from grandparents that went to sea.
Working with eggs was the least expensive method to determine whether successful restoration could be done on the cheap. That meant using over-the-counter items from hardware stores.
Christman said they mounted water pumps on backpack frames and built their own metal piping cones, which resemble hollow peg legs. They’re modeled on Alaskan hydraulic egg planters.
Wearing waders, Yodsnukis and Hilton stood in the river and set the narrow end of the cones on the bottom.
Christman, wearing the backpack pump, sucked water through it from a rear hose in the river into a front-mounted pipe that shot a jet of water down through the cone, scouring a hole into which the cone dropped.
During this work, Mark Pasterczyk and Jason Bartlett of the Maine Department of Marine Resources, emptied eggs into river water in Igloo jugs.
Hilton and Bartlett scooped eggs from the jugs and placed them in the cones where they sank to the bottom.
Then, Hilton and Bartlett lifted the cones a little and gently shook them, which caused gravel to collapse into the hole, covering the eggs. The process was repeated for another scoop, and then started anew a short way downstream.
“It is elegant beyond belief how they do this,” Hilton said. “This is the first place that it’s ever been done like this and these guys just dreamed it up on their own.”
Historically, the Sandy River, a tributary to the Kennebec River, is where the now-endangered Atlantic salmon once spawned.
Tens of thousands of years of spawning and salmon runs came to a crashing halt in 1837 when the Edwards Dam was built on the Kennebec, Christman said.
The dam “completely cut off the spawning grounds in the Sandy River,” he said.
Atlantic salmon were almost completely abolished from the Kennebec. Flash forward to Thursday.
“This is the third year of the introductions, and this coming spring will be the first-of-the-year that will basically go to sea,” Christman said.
Atlantic salmon spend two years in the river, then head for the ocean from April through June, taking advantage of high flows and down-river passages at dams.
They spend two years in the ocean off the coast of Greenland and in the Arctic Circle, then return to spawn by smelling the correct river to enter, he said.
But because there are no passages at the dams, they’ll be trapped at the first dam and trucked to the Sandy, Christman said.
Adult survivors of the first batch of salmon that hatched from eggs planted in 2010 are expected to return in 2014.
“The river will most likely have the greatest natural run of wild-reared salmon in the whole United States,” Christman said.
So far, the return rate of young from the number of eggs placed and the number that will still be alive this coming fall is greater than 35 percent.
“So, essentially one out of every three eggs we put in the gravel will be a young-of-the-year this fall that will have made it through the summer and living in the river,” Christman said. “That’s a very high percentage and that’s very good.”
He said the fish are considered more of a wild population because they’re emerging in sync with the river when their food is available.
“It seems to be giving them a boost, as far as survival is concerned, to get through that summer,” he said. “The more success we have, I think there’s going to be more done in other rivers, particularly when we start getting adults back.”
To volunteer to help plant hundreds of thousands of eggs with the Sandy River Atlantic Salmon Restoration project, meet at the rear of the McDonald’s parking lot in Farmington at 8 a.m. on Feb. 10, 14, 15 and 16. Warm clothes, snowshoes and chest or hip waders are necessities. For more information, contact Paul Christman of the Maine Department of Marine Resources at 557-9336.