Trickle-Down Theory: Small Creeks, Big Returns

by Scott Sadil

It’s always a surprise – maybe moreso the first week of February. 

You come off the trail and descend through the hush of forest, sullen in the damp press of winter, only to discover a commotion near water’s edge.  Gulls and mallards babble about the shallows. Eagles swoop and soar, screaming at you or one another before alighting in the riparian oaks, where they take up postures of fantastical fruit displayed amongst the leafless gray limbs. 

And in the creek itself, other wild animals silently stir, mysterious creatures creasing the shadowed currents, only to erupt, time and again, into frolic or fight, it’s hard to tell which through the splashy froth and muted glare.

Then if it hasn’t hit you already, there’s the smell. Scattered about the creek, both in and out of the water, lie dozens and dozens of dead coho salmon, their carcasses bleached by decay, the flesh as mottled as nightmares or wounds. The smell engulfs you, a fetid odor reminiscent of something long forgotten deep in the refrigerator, the trunk of your car, the bilge of a rotting wooden boat. 

In the grip of such offal it’s easy to descend into notions of death, morbid contemplations on our own mortality – when, by way of luck, you’ve stumbled instead upon one of the great expressions of the earth’s fertility, nothing to do with death at all, but a transitory stage in a single life cycle that precedes us by eons and may well spiral, if given a chance, towards eternity.

I recall with some discomfort a discussion I had years ago with a fisheries biologist aboard a barge assigned the task of transporting salmon smolts down the Snake river, past the dams that have done so much to disrupt the migration of sea-run salmonids throughout the Columbia basin. 

I was headed upriver in Tía, a little sailing dory I had built; the barge, pushed by a powerful tugboat, was passing that same moment in the same direction through the Little Goose lock, returning to collect another load of juvenile salmon and steelhead, intentionally trapped above each Snake River dam so that they didn’t suffer the drastically increased fatality rates experienced by out-migrating fish, both wild and hatchery-raised, since the dams were put in place.

The fisheries biologist proudly announced that the barging operation was now 99% successful; only one per cent of the twenty million juveniles carried downstream failed to make it to tidewater.

“Twenty million?” I asked. “Is that anywhere near enough? Even close to what it takes to keep runs healthy?”

The rough estimate accepted by most fisheries pundits is that 10-16 million salmon and steelhead used to return annually to the Columbia River basin.  If you consider the miniscule percentage of juvenile fish that survive to spawn, you can see why barging twenty million smolts downstream might seem to someone like pissing up a rope.   

“I don’t have an answer to your question,” said the biologist. “It’s impossible to know what the juvenile output of the system used to be.”

What we do know is that the downstream barging of juvenile salmonids, along with a decades-long reliance on hatchery-raised fish, has failed to halt what appears to many of us, in our darkest moments, as a downward spiral toward regional extinction.

More to the point, none of these or other manner of human intervention has come close to replicating the spectacular productivity of countless creeks and small streams that once fed the Columbia River from Astoria to beyond the Canadian border. 

Many if not most of these micro spawning habitats have been degraded, if not entirely drowned, by the rise of stillwater reservoirs behind mainstem dams. Add to that the obvious consequences of industry, exploitation, and development, plus the effects of roads and railways and culverts that alter the natural course of the final reach of these tiny watersheds, and suddenly you recognize that every one of them trickling into the Columbia might offer the suggestion of a gold mine, a vein, however thin, of promise and fecundity as precious as any on the planet.

My recommendation? Go down to the creek mouth and smell the wealth.  If it sounds like the eagles are scolding us, maybe we should listen.

As Jim Lichatowich told us, salmon need healthy rivers.

And tiny creeks.

And small streams.


Gray’s Angling Editor Scott Sadil recalls taking his sons to watch a pool of spawning chinook; by afternoon’s end, the boys had started calling many of the individual fish by name.