The True Story

“Look at how pink the pelvic and anal fins are.”

by Scott Sadil

Everybody loves data.

I’ve sat in on two Zoom presentations this past month, each one packed with information about salmon and steelhead and other native fish species recolonizing watersheds ten years after the removal of dams. 

The data is conclusive: Based on redd counts, snorkeling surveys, telemetry, and a host of statistical modeling techniques, we have all the evidence we need to show that dam removal allows fish populations to return to and reinhabit a historical range – a conclusion I suspect any grade schooler could have predicted long before he or she discovered the appropriate keys to perform long division.

But the numbers tell only a small part of the story.

Worse, I wonder how much they take our attention off the full breadth and beauty of what, through habitat restoration, we hope to achieve.

Numbers suggest a world both quantifiable and mechanistic – concepts useful in their own right, I suppose, yet outside the realm of what attracts so many of us to sport in the outdoors. It’s what we don’t know, I’d argue – the mysteries implied, the surprises that occur – that bring most of us back, again and again, to stream and field.

On a local river this past weekend I was reminded of the richness of the story the numbers don’t tell when habitat is allowed to recover some of its former glory. Abused by decades of cattle and sheep grazed willy-nilly to water’s edge, the river and its delicate riparian corridor now enjoy the protection possible when landowners, government agencies, and wildlife managers work together to steward rather than exploit the land.

Evidence of healthy river systems comes in many forms: Largescale sucker, Catostomus macrocheilus.

The outcomes are impressive.

A vigorous population of native rainbow trout, the fish comprise only a small piece of the reinvigorated river canyon. What about the mule deer feeding on the grass below the basalt talus? The nesting mallards on the islands? The vigilant geese? That gobbling flock of jakes?

An osprey with a trout in its talons.  

Bighorn ewes and their young.  

The first mountain bluebird arrived from who knows where.

Still, even a list, like numbers, can quickly dull the sense of vibrancy offered by a healthy, rebounding ecosystem. Nobody can possibly give more than half a hoot to, say, the well-being of the largescale sucker (Catostomus macrocheilus) population in a blue-ribbon trout stream – but when one shows up on the end of your line, a little Czechish nymph pinned to its ghastly lower lip, you’d best understand that these fish, too, are part of the whole picture.

Of course, as any good hunter, gatherer, or naturalist can tell you, the more you notice, the more you notice. Despite sunshine and blue skies, the scent of spring riding the warm air, the insects are quiet during this, the exact same moment the big trout have all but vanished, no doubt off doing their most important chore of the year before returning to feeding lanes in their favorite lies.

When my buddy Joe Kelly, fisheries biologist and high school science teacher, finally guides “a good one” to the net, he takes a moment to admire the details.

“Look at how pink the pelvic and anal fins are,” he says.

We lean in close to appreciate the colors.    

Hard to capture that in the numbers.


Gray’s angling editor, Scott Sadil, likes the way his front lawn begins looking like native pasture by the time he returns home from fishing trips in spring.