Winter Feed

Spawning coho

by Scott Sadil

My buddy, Joe Kelly, called to say he’d been out over the holidays and caught a few trout.  Oddly enough, he caught them on a local river we normally visit for anadromous fish, salmon and steelhead.  Odder still, he killed a couple.

“Kathleen likes eating them,” he explained, referring to his sweetheart.  

“You should have seen what they’d been eating,” he added.

Turns out, all four of the trout he landed were stuffed full of salmon eggs.  Even the ones he released, said Joe, were bloated to the point that he could make out the shape of the eggs under the bulging sides and belly of the fish, each one resembling a sock filled with small ball bearings.

More noteworthy still, however, was the fact that Joe caught these wild, feeding trout in a part of the river that, a dozen years ago, had no trout at all.

Before the dam came out, any small salmonid you caught would have been a salmon or steelhead smolt, six or eight inches long.  Maybe you could have landed a sea-run cutthroat, but that would have been an especially remarkable find.  Resident trout lived above the dam.  Salmon and steelhead either spawned below or paused momentarily in the cool lower reaches of the river before dropping back into the Columbia and continuing their journey upstream.

When the dam was breached, everyone who had advocated its removal was excited by how much river habitat would again be available to spawning salmon and steelhead.  What hadn’t been anticipated was the striking improvement of spawning habitat in the same lower reaches of the river where the salmon and steelhead had spawned while the dam was in place.  Suddenly, the lower reaches were refreshed with cobble and gravel—perfect material for building nests, or redds, all of it cleansed and oxygenated by a cold, free-flowing river.

More surprising still, trout came down river to join the fun.

It’s a lesson repeated, again and again, wherever dams are removed.  Fish, like birds, are migratory animals; they have places to feed, places to spawn.  Healthy habitat includes the entire watershed, all of its parts connected into a single integrated system greater than the sum of its parts.

And, to paraphrase Mr. Kesey, a damn sight holier, too.

Nothing is more encouraging, to my way of thinking, than these unexpected results of dam removal.  What’s implied it that we don’t know—that rivers and fish cannot be reduced to understandable recipes and formulae, the stuff of hatcheries, for example, built to mitigate the damage caused by dams.  They pulled out the dams on the Elwha, at the top end of the Olympic peninsula, and rainbow trout that had lived above the dam for more than 100 years immediately swam out to the Strait of San Juan de Fuca, only to return as steelhead.  

Go figure.

When I think about the Klamath River drainage, which rises in southern and central Oregon, east of the Cascades, before passing through the Coast Range and out to the northern California Pacific, I can only imagine what the pending removal of four—but not all—of its dams will do to improve the river for both anadromous and resident fish.  

Surprises there, no doubt, as well.  Which, as an angler, may be what I’m looking for most of all.

It’s the mystery, I’d argue, that keeps us coming back for more.

Pacific Coast Flies & Fly Fishing, a new book by Gray’s angling editor Scott Sadil, will be released February 1.