Fishing for the Dead
The waterways teem with salmon spawning this year. Two locals hiked up Salmon Creek and, one of them, Kyle Keegan wrote this guest post.
I wanted to report our findings from a “citizens salmon survey” conducted by Harry Vaughn and I last Friday. Harry Vaughn is our local fisheries biologist who has been active in wild salmon restoration issues for many years here on the north coast. He and his wife Jan, have been involved in raising awareness about salmon and steelhead in Humboldt County schools, Salmon Creek Community School included. They both live in lower Salmon Creek on his family’s land who settled into the watershed in the early 1900’s. I feel that Harry’s “place based knowledge” is of infinite value to the community and it is always an honor to spend time with him.
In late November, I got out and hiked the Hideaway Hills section of Salmon Creek and was alarmed to not find any signs of Chinook despite record numbers of fish being counted at Van Arsdale Station on the Eel. It had been seven years since I had hiked the river in search of spawners and the absence of them made me realize the increased potential for a local extinction to take place without the community even knowing. The recent high flows of December kept Harry and I out of the water when most of the normal spawning activity takes place, so we have had to wait until flows backed off and water clarity returned. The Department of Fish and Game has a computerized lottery system that randomly selects local streams and stream reaches to conduct surveys and this year Salmon Creek was selected. In the past, we have mostly relied on their irregular and intermittent surveys to monitor the fish populations of Salmon Creek. Harry and I both feel that no outside entity could care enough about the health of our watershed than local residents and we’d like to take a proactive stance with observing and taking note of our native salmon runs. We both agreed that we need to make it a priority in the years to come to get out on the water and conduct citizen surveys in order to build our “local knowledge base” and connect with our community’s mascot species. There is nothing like seeing a 3-4′ long mass of solid shimmering fish carrying out it’s ritual in one’s home place. It’s one of the only experiences I can think of that would entice someone to stand out in a cold drizzle for longer than is healthy, to experience such a sight in person.
On Friday, we started our hike approximately 500 yds above the confluence of Salmon Creek and the South Fork Eel at 9:30am on a frosty morning. The water clarity was 2-4′ and the river was flowing swiftly and felt strong and full. Minutes into the hike we caught the dense, sweet smell of rotting carcass which led us to our first Chinook Salmon skeleton of the day! It takes an odd couple of guys to be so thrilled to touch and smell the dank earthiness of a large rotten fish skeleton. This was our first sign of hope that led into many more smiles, laughs and passing around of rotten flesh.
The second and most intact specimen was a 2yr old “jack”. A jack is a young male Chinook that follows the winter runs upstream despite it’s small size. Most of the other fish are 4-5years old and much larger. It is not exactly known why jacks make the journey but it is hypothesized that their young and agile energy ensures a chance to sneak in-between dominate males and spread their sperm on female eggs. Their alternate age class also may give the species as a whole a better chance of survival over time, amidst unpredictable stream flows and storm events. This particular (21″) dead fish was covered with the feeding aquatic larvae of mayflies– a living example of the important role the carcasses play in nutrient cycling. It is now understood that nutrients from large salmon runs play a crucial role in fostering healthy aquatic insect populations as well as the increased growth rate of riparian trees. Both necessary requirements for healthy juvenile salmon populations, not to mention the Bald Eagles, Black Bears, and other forest creatures that benefit. A vital link between–ocean, land, river, human, and the complex and interdependent realms of the biotic community.
All together we found 9 Chinook Salmon carcasses, with most of the finds being in the vicinity of Hideaway Hills. Hideaway Hills has historically been utilized by Chinook Salmon due to it’s low gradient reaches and preferred substrate (medium sized cobble) that they like for making their redds (nests). The largest carcass was a 40″ male found where Mill Creek enters Salmon Creek just downstream of the Salmon Creek/Thomas Rd junction. We did not find any live fish and all of the possible redds were blown-out from December’s heavy rains and sustained flows. All of the carcasses found were wild fish as best as we could tell.
Overall, the stream looked like it was on the continued slow-road to recovery. Dense Alder stands line most of the stream now in areas that were barren a decade ago. Many of the past restoration projects conducted by Jack Monschke were intact and serving the purpose of stream bank stabilization as well as beneficial habitat–the original rip-rap structures now naturalized and fitting into the healing landscape. Redwood trees planted by local crews almost ten years ago are mostly over-head now. We spotted Common Mergansers (an aquatic fish-eating duck) as well as a Belted King Fisher and plenty of raccoon tracks. I should mention unfortunately, lots of grow-related garbage in the creek and I had wished that we had garbage bags to carry it out despite the hassle it would of been. I feel it’s also important to mention that some ill planned road-building is going on in the lower watershed on extremely steep land directly above the stream course. All of the fill material was dumped over the side of the road-cut and cast directly into the stream in some of the best spawning grounds we have. An estimated, 100 cubic yards or so. Very sad to see and feel.
In the weeks to come, we’ll be getting out and into the South Fork of Salmon Creek searching for Steelhead. We hope to hike Tosten Creek once again since it was a spectacular place to visit in past years. Tosten Creek is the “crown jewel” of the watershed as far as habitat goes and is a headwater tributary of South Fork Salmon Creek, where Hacker and Kinsey Creek also come together. It’s low gradient reaches and ideal spawning gravels bring the returns of the most vigilant Steelhead to conduct their rituals under the shaded canopy of it’s cool, clean waters. In 2003, Harry and I were shocked to find Steelhead nesting as far up the small drainage as we could walk. The fish had miraculously passed multiple log jams and waterfalls to get there, almost 70 miles from the ocean! Tosten Creek is perhaps Salmon Creek’s best chance for rearing the endangered Coho Salmon. It’s waters run cold and clear even in the dry years and the forest canopy is fully intact and shaded. Lots of in-stream habitat: logs, cut-banks, and plunge pools. Our hope is that stray Coho will once again find their old home in our watershed and re-establish a viable population. They will undoubtedly require our continued community efforts to work towards water conservation and sediment reduction. This past year, the South Fork Eel was designated California’s last best chance for the survival of wild Coho Salmon populations. It is believed to still have the healthiest runs of wild Coho Salmon left in California. Salmon Creek was recognized as one of the few remaining tributaries to the Eel that has appropriate Coho habitat and could someday once again serve as a refuge to the species. In time, when a stray fish does make it back into our watershed to re-establish a population, we’ll be the first to let you know when and where the party is!
Our intention this year was to find a pair of spawning Chinook and to bring the Salmon Creek Community School kids and parents there to witness the spectacle. The December storms prevented this opportunity. Our hope is that next year we’ll find a window between storm events, find spawners, and get students and local residents there to experience the thrill with us. It can be hard to connect and work towards the protection and health of something that one has never seen or felt connected with. If anyone is interested in going on any of the stream hikes with us, let me know. We’ll be back out on the stream in February. The only necessary equipment is a pair of waders/boots. I’ll be working on finding some used pairs so we can get more residents wet and smelling the sweet scent of carcass.
Kyle later added this:
This may be the best news of the winter season thus far for us Creeksters! Thanks to an email from Becky and TJ who live out on the South Fork of Salmon Creek, I got word that, “a carcass of a large fish without a head was found near Bogus Creek”. It was found by TJ, who was out and walking the stream banks. I got out tonight just before dark and walked from Bogus Creek upstream about 1/2 mile on the South Fork of Salmon Creek. The river was way-up and discolored and I was alone, so I kept close to the bank to avoid taking a swim. I was having a hard time seeing much with the river being so swollen and just when I thought I should head home empty handed, I spotted the faint paleness of a skeleton in some alders. Sure enough, it was a salmon skeleton that was 32″ long! That was all I needed to keep looking and within another half an hour of searching I found four more carcasses. All appeared to be Chinook Salmon. The one photo of the fish below was a 33″ female Chinook Salmon.
It was an dreamy experience to find some of the carcasses wrapped around trees that Jack Monschke and I had planted over a decade ago– their fertile flesh feeding energy back into the landscape. I am trying to find out any info as to when the last salmon were seen spawning in the south fork. [Some old neighbors] shared that they have not seen a salmon on the south fork since they have lived there. I think they’ve been living on the creek for over 25 years. Does anyone have any info regarding this or have ideas as to who to contact?
I believe that the chance for a strong recovery in our watershed is high. The riparian habitat is coming back and many of the slides are stabilizing. Past restoration projects, both upslope and in-stream have improved many sections of the watershed. New spawning areas have been exposed as sediment moves through the system. Most importantly, a fish-passage barrier was removed in the lower section of the river in 2003, and several new miles of potential spawning habitat now exist. This may explain why Chinook are making it this far up into the system.
Much of Salmon Creek and it’s tributaries are beginning to become shaded once again helping to cool lethal summer-time temperatures. The potential for stronger and stronger runs are very real. Seeing water pumps still in the creek today and washed down stream was a reminder that all we need to do is keep working on helping each other to conserve water and the years to come could be something of a new era. Many new storage tanks and ponds are dotting our landscape which is a great sign, I think.
[Soon] Harry Vaughn and I will be surveying Mill Creek which is a tributary to Main Salmon Creek in the lower watershed. We’re crossing our fingers in hopes of finding a Coho carcass. We just got word after talking with a DFG biologist that they found 3 Coho juveniles in Mill Creek during a survey in 2009. This is outstanding news once again and we plan on keeping a close eye on this small tributary in hopes of finding more signs of this endangered fish. I’ll keep you all informed of what we find.