Archive for the ‘Salmon and Steelhead’ Category

Warning: This post contains a fairly graphic image.

This isn’t the post I wanted to write about this trip. I wanted to write a love song about a remote backcountry stream somewhere between northern California and southern British Columbia, a place that has never been logged, where the runs of salmon and steelhead of decades and centuries past sway in the old growth sitka Spruce and douglas Fir and the younger alder and maples that stand along the stream banks. This place has strong runs of coho and chinook and steelhead. I make several pilgrimages a year there, where I always feel my spirits restored, my hopes renewed and my commitment to conservation of indigenous, self-sustaining coldwater fish populations reinvigorated. I feel good there.

I hiked in, greeted by the smell of death and stumbled on the poacher’s camp. A dead cow elk lay near an abondoned tent, debris and a igloo-esge wigwam constructed of douglas Fir boughs. The meat had been stripped of the side of the elk and much (to my untrained eye) had been wasted:

Poached Cow Elk

Near the corpse lay a calling card that completed the scene and gave a glimpse into the poacher’s mind. Not ashamed, he was genuinely proud . . .

Poacher's Calling Card

There were also signs of “fishing.” Abandoned bags of cured roe . . . my mind spun with the possibilities, poached hen salmon eggs used to poach steelhead in a pernicous cycle of waste and abuse. Somehow, the world felt cheaper and crueler, like the when unattainable girl you idolized from afar as a youth threw herself at some dumb jock who dumped her immediately and bragged to everybody who’d listen, relaying the story of conquest, sneering, laughing and coarse. Disgraceful. I strung up my rods.

The strategy was simple. Swing the swinging water, bobbercator the indiacator water and if the flies didn’t work, show ’em the spinner. I worked upstream fast as is my way without touching any fish and saw a flyfisher just ahead vacating a deep pool. Figuring he had thoroughly worked it with his flies I skipped mine, cast a spinner and retrieved slowly. A sea run cutty grabbed my lure but didn’t stick and I repeated the cast, retrieving even slower and a bucky buck, dual striped with a deep glowing red gill plate grabbed me and ran us up and down the pool before sucumbing. Of the fish I hooked or caught there is only this shot:

Bucky Wild Steelhead Buck

There were other hopeful signs. A log jam that started three years ago has continued to grow, accumulating habitat enhancing debris:

Natural Log Jam, Year 3

The stream was full of steelhead redds, I stopped counting at well over twenty in less than three miles:

Steelhead Redd

I moved a steelhead with a swung intruder and it took position behind the fly, grabbed and I set too soon. There was no connection. Then it happened in this pool:

Sage TCX

As my tandem offering drifted into the gut of the run my indicator plunged down and I was connected to the hottest steelhead I’ve ever hooked. The big buck went on a rampage, first running down toward the bouldery tailout I was able to turn him and he jumped in displeasure. He ran towards the top of the run, turned and reached full speed running downstream and again broke the surface with the most impressive leap I’ve ever personally witnessed from a hooked steelhead, easily four feet. He came upstream one last time and powered down toward the tailout again, I tried to stop him from reaching the rapids below . . . . I put on the brakes and held –but my but leader didn’t and it was over. No great loss. My only regret is that I had been unable to locate the tripod or you’d be watching video of this ass-kicking instead of reading about it.

I continued to work upstream not doing any more good with the flyrod. I pitched my spinner just below a rapid and as soon as it hit the water a chrome hen grabbed it, breaking the surface I saw her silvery head and flanks as she spit my spinner back at me in disgust. I fished the next run with the flyrod and caught a bright hen on a spinner. In this small water she also ran toward the downstream rapid and I knew I couldn’t stop her. I stopped fighting, opening my bale and she held in the tailout for several minutes under minimal tension. Lulled to sleep I moved her into deeper water and began the fight again, a quick tailing and she was off. A couple casts later, a buck who must have been courting her chased down my offering, took a swipe but wasn’t hooked.

Hiking out thorough the old growth in the moonless night, a small circle of light thrown by my headlamp, I wondered if the cougar and bear used the trail once darkness had fallen and I thought of the big steelhead trout in the small stream below and whether they too felt a tinge of fear at the wildness of it all.


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Jan. 27, 2009

Last weekend I was in Portland for the conservation cause, hence I have no recent fishing reports. Friday was dedicated to a meeting of the full working group for the Carmen-Smith hydroproject. I’ve written about Carmen-Smith before but I’ll give you a quick primer.

Carmen is the highest dam in the Mckenzie watershed. It blocks 100% of the flow of the river and diverts it all to the neigboring watershed, the Smith River drainage. Smith River is also dammed. In that reservoir is a tunnel that diverts some of the flow through a penstock generating electricity and then into Trailbridge regulating reservoir formed by Trailbridge dam. The Smith Dam outfall also flows into Trailbridge reservoir.  At that point (Traibridge dam) the river is reregulated, ie. inflow in balanced with outfall. Meanwhile, the mainstem Mckenzie also reemerges upstream of Trailbridge dam fed by springs at Tamolitch dry falls and the mainstem Mckenzie also flows into Trailbridge reservoir. Clear as mud? Here’s a drawing.  Study it for a couple minutes and reread my explanation over and it might make sense:

Carmen Smith Hydroelectric Project

Some good things will be coming from the new license. Foremost among these is a fish ladder at the lowest dam in the project, Traibridge. This will allow spring chinook to utilize additional habitat above that dam and fragmented bull trout populations to reconnect.
There will be woody debris and gravel enhancements as well as guaranteed minimum flows in all reaches. Traibridge will be left at a pool level that allows bull trout unimpeded access through the culvert at Sweetwater Creek during their spawing season. There is also potential for a ladder at Carmen if brook trout can be controlled. There is no need to build a ladder for these invaders otherwise.

So that is about what to expect from the new license once FERC issues it. So, what is holding the license up? The Bi-op needs to be completed by the feds and the 401 certification needs to be completed by the DEQ.  The 401 is complicated by the fact that the Mckenzie goes undergound for a time.  So, where is the water temerature to be measured?  No matter really, it is damn cold everywhere up there and will certainly pass muster. 

I also discussed implications of the drawdown of Trailbridge reservoir during construction and I was assured that we will not see a repeat of the gawdawful sediment issues that took place during the Cougar dam project.  EWEB also indicated that they are going to try to avoid drawing the reservoir down at all during construction. 

Expet to see a new license issued sometime in the fall of this year or early next year.  The sooner the better.  If it’s issued sooner we may not miss the instream work period for next year.  That’d be nice.

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I should explain . . . I’ve been fishing more than usual. Because of Oregon’s dismal chinook returns this past fall, I took the salmon season off. Somehow, I fought off the salmon cravings though the tremors were hard to take. So, I’m resolved to steelhead as much as possible and more than is prudent this winter. Hey, a man can have worse vices . . . .

Matt and I set anchor in a good hole and started working it–Matt with my fly rod, which always brings him luck. He fished the soft water out in front of the boat that tailed out over a ledge that kept pulling his indicator under. I saw the indicator again plunge beneath the surface of the river and said, “ledge again, huh?”

“That’s a fish!” The chrome hen gave Matt about all he wanted on my 8 weight:

Lake Creek Winter Steelhead

Lake Creek Steelhead

As Matt bled the hen steelhead, a fish grabbed my spinner. I reared back to set the hook and instead ended up in a sword fight with the fly rod, lines tangled and the fish was gone. We moved a bit further down and as my spinner thumped in a tailout, I felt a fish attack my lure, the rod surged down twice and then inexplicably it was gone. Oh well.

We didn’t scrape any steelhead the rest of the day. We did see a old, spawned out coho, ravaged by fungus, sweep down a rapid with us and then stubbornly, beautifully turn around and nose toward the rapid again. I took meaning from that and if I was more eloquent, I’d explain.

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The phone rang Tuesday morning. It was Rick on the other end. “I’m at Fred Meyers right now buying my license. Let’s fish.”

“I can’t. I’m working. Besides I’m going Thursday.”

“Today is the day, I’m checking the graphs. It is going to be blown out Thursday.” I navigated to the graph and he was right. It was forecast to be blown out on Thursday.

It was with a heavy heart I said, “I can’t.” I hung up the phone, deliberated for a couple minutes, my entire though process consisted of me thinking, yes I can, and I will. I called back, “I’m in.”

We dropped his boat in the river and began fishing down.  Strangely, we didn’t hook any fish in the sweet spot.  We anchored up above some rapids and I cast my spinner towards the opposite bank and worked the tailout before the next rapid. “Fish on!” A feisty buck steelhead had crunched my spinner. I pool was full of bedrock shelves and ledges and during his repeated runs I kept my rod tip high to keep from breaking off:

Fighting a Lake Creek Steelhead

The buck tailwalked and thrashed impressively but was eventually exhausted:

Lake Creek Steelhead

Even though there was some condensation on the lens, I love this shot. Oregon in winter is a cool, liquid world and this photo seems to capture the essence of that. Mist shrouded hills cloaked with dripping douglas fir, a watery artery making it’s way through the Coast Range to the sea and a drenched angler holding a sea run rainbow trout. Condensation is the scene.

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After confirming the coastal rivers had finally fallen into shape, I checked the weather forecast. “Rain with a 60% chance of freezing rain.” Sounds like winter steelheading to me and besides with one very special week off between Xmas and New Year’s it was no time to be a fair weather fisherman. So with only passing thoughts of how nasty crossing Mary’s Peak could be, (sounds like a job for the Ram and a bit of engine braking, right?) I threw the rest of my gear in the truck.

I picked up my friend Rob who despite being a stellar steelhead fisherman and guide hadn’t spent too much time on the Alsea. “How do you think the water is going to be?”

“Perfect, of course I always think it’s going to be perfect.” Anglers reading this know what I’m talking about, hope is what drives us out of bed at o’dark thirty to go stand out in the rain and cold making cast after cast, always ready for the tug. We reached the river, geared up and soon enough had slipped the boat into the waters of the Alsea River. The water level was perfect, the color almost a thrilling shade of steelhead green but just ever so slightly on the slate side of the color spectrum. I was convinced we would find our quarry:

Alsea River

Soon we anchored in a productive area and at the bottom end of a run Rob’s float slipped under. “Fish on.” Rob leapt out of the boat having a strong preference, for reasons he could better explain, for fighting fish from the bank. His light tackle rod was bent in a sweeping arc as he put the wood to a smallish chrome steelhead that leaped and tailwalked across the surface of the pool. “You want the net?” I asked.

“Nope, don’t use ’em.” Ok, whatever you want.

“Should I throw you the fish whacker?”

“No.” Rob pulled the exhasted steelhead near and tailed it. “Native,” I heard him yell and with a quick twist of the hook shank the fish was freed, hopefully to father many more of his kind. We were both kind of surprised to see a wild fish in the river this early. We slapped five’s and switched positions, Rob moving to the sticks to free me up to fish, I grabbed my fly rod and went to work hitting all the current breaks I could reach. Soon enough my indicator plunged under, I set the hook and felt the familiar headshakes of a steelhead. The hen made a downriver run, thrashing about the surface and then reversed course, running upriver. I struggled to mantain tension and get her on the reel, which I did:

Fighting an Alsea River Winter Steelhead

The fish was soon exhausted and came to hand:

Alsea River Winter Steelhead

Being a hatchery fish, we gave her the Ty Cobb handshake, bled her and into the bag she went. We scooted on downriver convinced we would come across a school of fish but it wasn’t to be. For some reason it seemed there were a few fish around but instead of being bunched up, they were scattered randomly thoughout the river. No matter, we caught a couple and besides any day you come back alive in those conditions, it’s a good day.

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Here’s one that I could never publish on the Oregon Fly Fishing Blog . . . .

It is no secret that I love to fish spinners for salmon and steelhead.  I never use them for trout.  The only way to fish trout for me is with flies that I tied myself.  But, unless you are gut hooking native trout with worms in an area where their population is depressed it really isn’t my place to judge your fishing.

Let’s talk mortality: I find I hook most fish in the corner of the mouth fishing spinners.  This is true whether the hook is a treble or a single.  Only once have I mortally wounded a steelhead spinner fishing.   Fortunately, she was spawned out.

Now, I fly fish for steelhead and salmon, don’t get me wrong but some water does hold fish but doesn’t lend itself to the fly. Should I pass over this water?

One friend tells me he just finds fishing with a fly rod inherently more satisfying. Good for him.  Seriously.  As another friend said to me recently, “you have to do you.”  So I’m going to keep doing me and fishing spinners.  Here’s why:

1. The hook-up is awesome

There rarely is any mistaking when a steelhead or salmon takes a spinner.   It’s normally a chompity-chompity surge or just a smashing grab.  Rarely is the take a gradual pull.  I’ve seen winter steelhead turn and chase my spinner down crushing it at full speed.  Talk about an adrenalin rush.  It’ll leave you shaking.  That just isn’t going to happen fishing an egg pattern under an indicator.

2. It is simple but takes skill

Simplicity is one thing that I love about fishing dry flies for trout.  The  cast, the line, the leader, it all comes together and is effortless.   Come Fall and Winter the Northwest rivers are swollen to epic heights and getting down into the fish zone is tough.  Do I need a Skagit line with a 300G head or . . . who gives a shit?  My mind shuts off when I hear the guys discussing that stuff.   Besides I don’t want to carry eight flippin’ lines when I go fishing.  I don’t want to spend my day reconfiguring my line.  I want to fish.  Besides, fly fishing for winter steelhead and fall salmon is generally inelegant. When I do fly fish for salmon and steelhead, I fish small water with a weighted fly and a floating line.  It keeps things simple and can be effective.

You don’t have to overthink spinner fishing for winter steelhead.  Get a #5 silver/silver spinner and get to work.  Cast, swing retrieving slowly, repeat.  Methodical, effortless, meditative and a lot like swinging a wet fly.  Sure, there are times for colors but if you had to pick one for winter steelhead . . . .

As for fall salmon, fish a #5 with a chartreuse body, or orange or pink, or blue . . . you can fish a brass and brass and the trusty silver and silver works as well.

3.  Spinner fishing is active

I like to move when I fish.  I don’t like to pound the same water all day.  With a spinner, if a fish is  there that will hit, you know.  Quickly.  If not, move on.

4.  Spinners are versatile.

While the Salmon and Steelhead angler’s bible indicates that spinners are best used in shallow riffly water, I have found success just about anywhere a fish might hold.  A riffle that drops into a bucket?  Fish On.  Tributary mouth?  Fish on.  Steelhead Riffle?  Fish On.  Deep Pool?  Let her sink and retrieve.  Fish on. In front of a rock? Fish on. In the tailout of a pool? Fish on. I can only think of a couple situations where spinners are useless.

I can’t think of any other method that is so effective over such diverse water types.

This bring me to my last reason.

5.  They are effective.

Spinners work.  Well.  I’ve pounded water with my fly rod many times for a half hour or more, hung it up and had a fish grab my lure within a couple casts.  I don’t go out hoping to catch fish. I expect to catch fish.

Spinner fishing I’m active, mobile, agile and hostile . . .

Oregon Coastal coho

Bob's released coho

Wild Steelhead

Oregon Coho salmon (aka Silver)

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This article is a republication with slight modifications of a piece I wrote for the Oregon Fly Fishing Blog.

“The good news is that the fish are still here. Despite our best efforts for the past hundred years, they are still around.” Charley Dewberry, March 2009.

As good a starting point as any . . . . The fish are still here, largely anyway:

Pacific Salmon Distribution

Graphic Courtesy of the Sightline Institute.

But as the graphic shows, they are threatened. Our task is restoring salmon and their watersheds and to do that we need to know what the habitat and watershed looked like and how it functioned in its undisturbed state. This has been a large part of Dewberry’s life’s work.

According to Charley, large woody debris placement projects as they were and still are (to a certain extent) being conducted are not “restoration.” They are “band-aids”, or ” random acts of kindness” that have their place and will boost numbers in the short run but will never achieve true restoration.

When Charley’s work began, Forest Service restoration planning consisted of clear-cutting and placing a large woody debris jam where convenient. This didn’t bring salmon back, that much was clear. The question was, why not?

To answer that question, Charley asked the fish. As architect of the Knowles Creek restoration project, he snorkeled the entire length of Knowles Creek in the Siuslaw basin and what he found was something of a surprise: three fourths of the salmonid smolts were in one beaver pond. This area obviously was highly productive. He also noticed that in years when smolts were relatively abundant they were small; when they were scarce, they were large. It doesn’t take a biology degree to riddle that one: they are food limited.

Charley realized that the whole watershed is not created equal for salmonids. Instead, the entire Knowles Creek basin contains about 20 “flats.” If the creek near the flat was being slowed, clogged with the boulders and enormous trees from a debris flow, this would create a slower water habitat ideal for rearing salmon smolts. These areas, where flats coincided with log/debris jams are described quite aptly by Charley as “pearls on a string.” The system was never static . . . the “pearls” moved on the string but the constant was that some of these these high value habitats, the flats, were life supporting pearls . . . .

The lesson? Large woody debris projects need to be strategically placed in areas with high intrinsic potential, not where a road is conveniently near the creek, or underneath some timber unit where you have some spruce logs stacked. Another thing Charley mentioned is the types of trees that were present in these debris flows can’t be helicoptered in, can’t be truly replicated by anything but time and natural occurrence, they need to grow again.

These were true Oregon Coast Range giants, the backbone of the historic log jams that formed beneath the flats and created the conditions that made huge runs of adult salmon possible: remaining in place until perhaps another catastrophic storm event; decomposing over a period of twenty or more years; collecting the leaves, carcasses and debris that form the base of the food chain; and, retaining the gravel that adults need to spawn. They were trees like this and lots of them:

Large Woody Debris/ Old Growth Spruce

Now, what comes sliding down the hill is smaller second or third growth and associated slash and debris that holds for at most a couple minutes temporarily damming the creek until the tremendous hydraulic power of the water blows it out, sending sediment downstream constantly and scouring the creek bed–more similar to splash damming during early log drives than historic conditions.

These photos show this phenomenon as the old growth spruce that forms the backbone of this jam has collected only much smaller debris in year two:

Natural Log Jam: Year Two

Natural Log Jam: Year Two

The action, as Charley sees it, is as much on the slopes as it is in the riparian area. The areas where historic debris slides occurred, (and these are a limited number of areas) need to be protected from harvest so that enormous trees may again grow and slide into the watershed.

We’ve been thinking too small, according to Charley, focusing our restoration efforts on the reach scale rather than looking at the entire watershed. There are three things that need to happen according to Dewberry in order to see meaningful “restoration.” In his view, all of these things have to be done to see fish populations recover:

  • Protect highly functioning areas and areas with high intrinsic potential to contribute to fish productivity.

This means protecting the upslope areas that are likely to contribute large woody debris to the system naturally, the debris fans. This also means protecting the riparian areas. This also means protecting or restoring the flats.

  • Stormproof the roads.

The Oregon Coast range is built out with many roads. Where streams cross these roads, the culverts need to be designed for a one hundred year flood event. If the culvert does fail, it should be designed to fail at the crossing. It is much more destructive for the water to flow in the road ditch for a couple hundred yards and then blow out the road flowing downhill through an area that hasn’t been previously eroded in that manner.

  • Re-establish mixed species riparian areas.

Currently riparian areas are alder dominated and restoration efforts often focus on planting alder. Alder is important. It is a nitrogen fixer in a nitrogen depleted system and it is also “the fastest leaf in the west.” Alder drops its leaves first and they are the first to be eaten by the stoneflies that are the most important aquatic macro-invertebrate in the Coast Range watersheds. But, alder leaves are also the first to decompose. Right now, in February/March everything (the bugs anyway) is eating maple leaves. It isn’t as high quality food, but it lasts. Currently, maple is in short supply. Without food there are no bugs. Without bugs there are no salmon.

For those of us that care about salmon restoration, the task before us is huge and daunting. But we are very lucky in that the Siuslaw, which is in our backyard has some of the best potential for recovery of any river in the United States. The stream used to (and still does at times) produce huge numbers of fish, much of the basin is in public ownership, Florence, at the mouth, is the biggest town in the watershed, and with the exception of industrial forestry, there is really no industry in the basin. According to Charley, if we can’t do it on the Siuslaw, we can’t do it anywhere.

I believe that with hard work, the Siuslaw can recover. If you think otherwise, it might be worth remembering that despite our best efforts, the fish are still here.–KM

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