Smith River Chronicles
The Blog of the Smith River Alliance
On September 21, 2019, join your community members and be part of the largest volunteer event in the USA. This project is supported by the California Coastal Commission’s Whale Tail License Plate Program (with finding from the purchase of Whale Tail specialty license plates.) RSVP to firstname.lastname@example.org or call (707) 954-3569 to participate. Lunch is provided. Click here for the event flyer.
In the last post flows were hovering around high and we were sneaking in surveys wherever we could as this year’s coho wrapped up their lifecycle. By the end of February we had finished up one last journey through the survey frame to finish out this year’s spawning ground surveys. I think maybe one or two coho were spotted in that last round, but by then all of the redds bore the distinctive marks of steelhead redds; deep potted and energetically built, but unfocused and ultimately kind of small. Since steelhead don’t die after they spawn, their strategy for redd building is entirely different than that of the salmon. A salmon will carefully work the gravel for a week or more, continually building and perfecting her one final masterpiece. On the other hand a steelhead is there to get it done quick and move on before getting caught. Like a mountaineer standing on some high summit, they’re only half way done.
So our season is done, and mill creek is slowly emptying of fish. But the creek is never really empty is it? The steelhead are starting to wrap up, pacific lamprey are just getting started, and the juvenile salmon are beginning to hatch. We’ve reached the flip side of all those carcasses and death of the spawning season, and the chinook eggs are beginning to hatch out as alevins, darting around through the spaces in the gravel. By now many of them have even developed into fry; fully formed little fishes that swim up into the turbulent world of the open creek, swirling around in eddies and generally being pushed downstream. The stream insects who’s population was boosted by all those salmon carcasses now go to feed the swarms of juveniles, and the cycle moves steadily forward. Meanwhile the survey crew moves forward with our own cycle. One rainy day in early March a crew gathered down in the mainstem of mill creek to install our downstream migrant trap. Every day this spring crews will go down and check the trap, counting and identifying all those little fish.
Ultimately as far as population numbers go this year they seem to be low, but somewhat similar to the past couple of years for both chinook and coho. While it is good that the population doesn’t seem to be in free fall, part of that is because if it fell much further it would be gone entirely. Since these populations are already on such tight margins any future management decisions that could impact these animals needs to be considered very seriously. Unfortunately as it currently stands, the future of this project is very much in doubt. Once again our funding did not go through, so although the cycle of the Smith River salmon continues on for now, the cycle of monitoring may not.
Some folks will say, “look, I know fish are cool but times are tough all around. Here we are spending all this money on monitoring some fish when we’ve got real problems of our own to deal with. What’s really going to happen if coho go extinct, we don’t really need coho do we?” And I can see this point of view, but I also know that it isn’t really just about coho. Old time coal miners didn’t need a canary to mine coal, but if that bird dropped dead it meant it was time to get out of that mine fast. As of yet we can’t really get off of this planet, so when we start seeing extinctions happening at a rate that’s only been matched five times before in the history of life on earth, we’d better start trying to figure out why all our “canaries” are dropping dead, and what that might mean for our own future.
Standing under the Jeep hatch to stay out of the rain I pull on my waders and strap on my boots. Both were shiny and new at the beginning of the season and both now hover on the edge of ruin. The inside of my waders are covered in Aquaseal patches and the felt on my wading boots is all but gone. This work has a way of grinding through high tech equipment in shockingly fast order. We’re getting on toward the end of the season here and I’m almost the last man standing. Jesse is off for a bit to welcome in his new child and the parks guys are starting to get busy with parks projects. But once again there is rain in the forecast so we need to squeeze every survey we can out of this little dry spell. So I lock up the Jeep, turn on my spot emergency locator device and head out into First Gulch.
Last week was a total bust. Flows spiked and dropped all week but never quite came into survey range. Hamilton is small and may have been surveyable one of those days, but I ended up on the phone with the sheriff instead after discovering that someone had stolen our battery box for the lower Mill Creek antenna. They had cut the lock, then instead of just stealing the 40lb each batteries they just drove off with the whole box. So we had to do a little re-wiring and install a somewhat more secure box. Next time someone tries to steal this thing they’ll have to lift all 400lbs at once. Hopefully that is sufficient.
First gulch ends up being empty save for a few steelhead test digs. In fact very little has been seen this week at all. There have been some steelhead, and a few obviously steelhead redds, but only a couple of lone haggard looking coho are left out there. As I walk back to the Jeep the rain and the wind begin to pick up. I get to the Jeep and go check the east fork, I was hoping to be able to do at least one of the reaches, but the east is already big and brown. That means we missed a good chunk of the east fork this round. But with a short survey window and an extremely limited crew there will be missed reaches. I go look at the west and it looks marginal but doable. We’ve covered the west pretty well on this round but haven’t hit the lowest reach yet.
As I’m preparing to go the wind and the rain crank up a notch. There goes my margin. Even if the water isn’t turbid yet, you can’t see through a creek getting splashed on by torrential rain. Well, I tried my best. Now it’s back to the office and back to waiting for the flow to drop back down.
A remnant old growth tree in the upper West Branch of Mill Creek
Here we are, sitting on the tail end of almost two weeks of mostly sunshine, and two whole weeks of slowly dropping flows. Before this, we had constantly fluctuating flows followed by almost four days in which the Smith just kind of stayed around 15-20,000 cfs. That’s too high for us to survey, and in most places too high for fish to spawn.
As soon as the flows started dropping, we headed out to see if the high water had brought in any more fish. After surveying three sub-reaches, we were getting pretty convinced that the coho were done, and we’d be stuck surveying, and re-surveying, empty reaches for the rest of the season. “Have you ever tried closing your eyes and seeing how far you can walk before you run into something?” my coworker asked while doing a long walking shuttle on one of our reaches. So it has come to this. This tends to happen toward the end of a field season on most of the crews I have worked on. The novelty and exploration factor slowly give way to tedium and repetition, made worse this season by the shrunken sample frame. But dealing well with repetitive, let’s say methodical, tasks is an essential skill when working in science regardless of whether it’s in the lab or in the field.
Scanning a (barely) live coho for a PIT tag.
Luckily we were happily surprised to find several coho building redds throughout Hamilton creek, our last reach of the day. Hamilton has been an interesting Creek to watch. When I first started on this project it had a perched and impassable culvert just a hundred meters or so above where it joins West Branch Mill Creek. We had done surveys above the culvert but hadn’t seen any sign that fish were getting past it to access the kilometer or so of prime spawning and rearing habitat above. The problem was that nobody wanted to remove the culvert, because that road allowed access to a number of other sites that were in need of restoration as well. Finally, a couple of summers ago a compromise was reached: Smith River Alliance purchased a mobile bridge unit that would allow some problem culverts to be removed without cutting off access for future restoration projects. And so the culvert was removed. Then the spawning season began and immediately the fish were up there. Chinook came in fairly large numbers, building a surprising number of redds for a relatively small creek. A few coho were seen that first season, but there were no confirmed coho redds. So seeing several confirmed coho redds in Hamilton was pretty exciting. It’s a great example of a restoration project having immediate measurable effects, and that feels pretty good.
The Hamilton Creek former culvert site
The creek is also fascinating from a hydrologic and historical perspective. When the road was built and the culvert was put in place, a gradient drop was created. Unlike a bridge which retains the natural stream bed contour, a culvert tends to act more like a dam, gathering sediment behind and flattening out, then dropping steeply downstream of the culvert. When the culvert is then removed, the stream will slowly cut downward, moving back up stream until an even gradient is reached. As it follows this process, the stream bed upstream from the old culvert site is slowly changing and revealing all sorts of strange cultural detritus. Hamilton Creek runs directly next to the main road that was used to access the old mill at the forks of mill creek. As the workers left the mill they would apparently chuck their beverage bottles and trash into the creek as they approached Highway 101 (that’s my theory, anyway) and as the newly liberated creek shifts and moves, all sorts of old bottles, chunks of road and other cultural artifacts are being unearthed.
Other restoration concerns exist past the removed culvert on Hamilton
Anyway, as the water dropped out and we got into more of our reaches it became clear that this was the peak of coho spawning. Where before we were seeing a redd or two here and there, now most of our surveys are turning up a few redds in each, and we’re even getting a handful of coho carcasses with their precious DNA data, though no recaptured PIT tag yet. With this stretch of dry weather we’re even getting a great opportunity to re-survey many of our reaches in between big flows, which helps us see fish actively making redds to get positive species IDs on the redds. Believe it or not, there’s still a chinook or two out there, so it is possible that some of these redds were made by chinook. We’re also starting to see our first steelhead redds. But now there is a “semi-stationary” wet weather system sitting off the coast that is forecasted to bring the rain back. High flows now will probably wash out most of the remaining coho, but could bring in a fresh batch of steelhead. So we’ll see how it goes from here.
A few remnant old growth redwoods tower over west branch mill
In my last post we were still seeing a handful of chinook, and the coho were starting to appear with a few redds here and there in several of our reaches. This continued for a bit, then we got another flush of rain and everything quieted down. Then we all went off for the New Years weekend and a series of cold, wet fronts came in bringing snow all the way down to sea level. I’m accustomed to surveying in snow on some of our upper middle and south fork reaches, but this year is the first time I have seen snow in mill creek, and it stuck around for about a week. During this week we put forth an all out effort and managed to survey our way through the entire frame before the next set of rain set in.
Surveying in the snow was an interesting treat as we got to see tracks from all of the critters patrolling the banks. We usually see some tracks here and there in the soft mud, but this time they were everywhere. In one of my reaches on the east fork I followed a set of bear tracks up the entire reach, and they continued up further into the next. This bear was on fish patrol, taking advantage of the relatively low water to snatch up any salmon caught in the shallows. Or if not that I’m sure it would have settled for a carcass. Unfortunately the reaches were all pretty empty. There were a few carcasses here and there, even a few rare coho carcasses, but very few live fish were seen.
In the field we wear polarized glasses to cut the glare. The redd at the end of the bear tracks really pops out when seen through the glasses, even if the color is distorted
Finding a coho carcass is always pretty exciting, partially because we don’t find that many of them but also because we get to scan them to see if they have a PIT tag. A PIT (Passive Integrated Transponder) tag is a small implant (like the “microchip” that some people put in their dog or cat) that reads a unique 16 digit code when run through a scanner. We have handheld scanners to check carcasses, and several sets of antennas running across the creek that will record any tagged fish that swims through, if it is within range. The antenna program has been happening long enough that now we are starting to pick individuals up both as juveniles heading to the ocean, but also as adults when they return to spawn. It’s because of this program that we know that at least a few coho have been in mill creek this season since early November, even though we didn’t see any until much later.
But the odds of finding a PIT tagged carcass are pretty low. We only end up tagging a small fraction of the juvenile coho before they head out to sea, and only a small fraction of those survive the rigors of the ocean to return to spawn, then when those fish die we only end up finding a small fraction of the carcasses before they disappear to predators/scavengers and high flows. So like i said, the odds are low. One of these days I’ll shoot the moon and find a tagged coho carcass that was tagged in the fall, picked up on the mill forks antenna, recaptured at the juvenile trap in the spring, picked up on the main mill antenna, picked up in one of our lower river antennas, then a couple years later picked up on the mill antennas again then finally found as a carcass and scanned by me. The odds of this happening are at least eleventy billion to one, but it is technically possible.
When you forget a fork in the field, just make chopsticks. Eating lunch in the truck because it’s friggin cold out there.
So things have been pretty quiet. Other than the “weird fish” there haven’t been any reports of steelhead yet, and the fishermen (and fisherwomen, fisherpeople?) are all talking about how nice of a day it is so it’s a sure bet they haven’t been catching much either. But we did just have another big flow event, so there should be new fish moving in. A series of atmospheric rivers developed and thoroughly hosed most of the west coast, melting our coastal snow and bringing the river up to 70,000 cfs twice this week. We’ve been unable to survey all week and are just getting back at it, so hopefully we’ll see a second flush of coho in addition to some steelhead as we get back in this weekend.
As I drove to work this morning the sky was salmon pink. Big waves battered the rocky coastline of the Oregon/California border as the last of the stars faded into daylight. Clear skies and a forecast for sun at this time of year meant it was going to be cold cold cold. This was the type of day where you know that it’s sunny and warm somewhere, but not down there in those creeks. Especially not today on the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year when any reasonable warm blooded creature would be huddled up in a warm den somewhere quietly celebrating the return of the light. My drive home tonight was the same as this morning but in reverse: pink salmon on the horizon, cobalt blue above then deepening to black with a multitude of stars shining through.
In my last post we had been waiting and waiting for the chinook, then we saw a brief burst of spawning which was then put on hold for high flows. We had some lulls in the rain with a few redds popping up in each lull. A few coho started showing up too, just to keep things interesting. Then we had a big event. In a little over 24 hours the sky opened up and dumped about 6 inches of rain on Del Norte county. This brought the river up to a raging 70,000 cfs (cubic feet per second) and that reset everything. Basically every redd out there was washed flat, several channels rearranged and some trees fell blocking our access to a few of our reaches. The high water also brought in a new flush of coho, and its about the right time that it could have brought in some steelhead too.
Earlier I was concerned that the chinook run may have been over, but as the water dropped out this week we found a new flush of chinook redds. Definitely not peak spawning, but still a good 5-8+ new redds in each reach. We also saw another flush of fresh looking carcasses. It’s hard to say without looking at the data just how strong or weak the chinook run this year was, but it still seems like it was a little low. The Klamath had a really poor chinook return this year, and I don’t think the Smith run was as bad as that, but we never did see entire riffles completely filled with redds like we usually do. But appearances can be deceiving and that’s why we take scientific data. So we won’t really know until it’s all compiled and analyzed.
Overall this has been a pretty fun week. After this last high flow we are entering a really neat period on the Smith where any of the four Smith River salmonids might be seen. Sometimes during this period it is even possible to get a “grand slam” and see all of the species in a single reach. There are still plenty of chinook, coho are starting to be seen regularly, some anadromous coastal cutthroat are out there and maybe if we’re super attentive we’ll catch a glimpse of the blue ghost, the steelhead. When steelhead first enter the river they look almost blue, and their secretive behavior, coupled with generally higher flows makes them almost invisible. I usually don’t see many until later when they start to put on their spawning colors.
The other day Tony and I may have had such a day. As we started on our way up the creek we saw a few chinook right off the bat, then we had two coho building a redd not too far after. Near the top of the reach we surveyed a small tributary (a sub-reach is smaller than a regular reach and generally surveyed in conjunction with the reach it flows into). In the sub we saw another coho or two then we came upon something strange. It was small, only about 40cm, and just sitting in the middle of a tiny creek without trying to hide at all. “It’s a cutty!” I said as I crept right up next to it. At that point I was about 5 feet from the fish and could see it perfectly. It had a few round spots on its back but almost none on the tail and head. Cutthroat are known for their “excessive spotting” all over their bodies and this was not that. Plus the tail was forked like a salmon tail. I noticed some white on the nares (nostrils) and figured that maybe it was a coho jack (a small male that returns early from the ocean, jacks use their small size to sneak in and fertilize some eggs while the big male is busy fighting other big males. Pretty sneaky). But it didn’t have the customary white lips of a coho and maybe had a slight steelhead colored flush along the lateral line. Then it opened its mouth and it was all white. Coho have white gums and black mouths so I called it a steelhead. I took a video and later posted it to Facebook to let the masses have their say. As usual the masses said some of everything including suggestions that it may have been a pink salmon or some other exotic stray. Some jokingly suggested the possibility of hybridization or genetic damage. In any case the debate rages on.
A little later in the survey we saw an actual cutthroat. It was spotted from snout to tail and definitely was not what we had just seen. So we’ll claim the grand slam. But who knows, pink salmon have been seen in the Smith, last year a sockeye carcass was found and the other crew found a chum salmon the other day. Maybe it was a masu salmon from Japan (it wasn’t), I’ve always wanted to see one of those. The canonical story is that salmon return to spawn in the same stream in which they were hatched, but a healthy dose of chaos is par for the course in any living system. If you are studying field ecology and your data starts looking too neat and orderly, it’s time to find out what you are doing wrong, because there’s always going to be some wacko pink salmon that mistakes the Smith for Southeast Alaska, and whether or not two things can hybridized you can bet some of them will try.
By the time we reach the put in the rain has already begun. It isn’t really all the way rain, but more of a heavy drizzle if such a thing exists. Using the open back hatch of the Jeep as an umbrella I change into my waders, lace up my wading boots, slap on a raincoat and get ready for another beautiful day spent knee deep in a creek, getting rained on while chasing after salmon. Today we’re in the West Branch of Mill Creek, in second growth redwoods just upstream from the skyscraper sized behemoths of Jed Smith State Park. The chinook are in. In fact this survey may mark the end of the peak of chinook spawning. Last time we surveyed this reach there were 36 new redds. Up until last time maybe only a dozen or so had been found in total. So we’ll see what we find today.
People seem to get really confused when I tell them that I count fish for work. But that is basically what I do. Coho salmon are listed as threatened under the endangered species act in California and that means that serious action is needed to keep them from vanishing from our rivers entirely. As much as it may seem like a simple question, it is actually pretty difficult to get a decent, meaningful estimate of population size and viability. To try to answer that question we split all of the potential coho habitat in the watershed into 2ish kilometer reaches, then survey them in various ways. In the fall and winter we count the nests that salmon dig in the gravel called redds by walking each reach repeatedly about every two weeks. Each redd represents the final successful reproduction of an individual female, which can be more informative than a raw population count. Meanwhile our various juvenile surveys in the spring, summer and fall help us determine habitat use, distribution and movement across the watershed and overwinter survival. Hopefully, monitoring on all of these levels will help us know not just if the population is rising or falling, but also at what stage and why. In years past there has even been a DIDSON sonar device near the mouth of the Smith operated by another organization. This device may provide the best raw count of adult salmonids returning to the river to spawn (though it cannot differentiate well between species), but unfortunately that project has not been funded for several years.
In fact, our project did not receive its normal funding this season either so we are operating as a true skeleton crew. In previous years we have been a crew of eight, and in addition to surveying the coho stronghold of Mill Creek, we also surveyed a good portion of potential habitat throughout the rest of the watershed. This year the crew is down to just two old veteran fish freaks, myself and my coworker Jesse, along with a rotating cast of three different wildlife techs on loan from the parks. It’s actually been really neat working with the parks guys since they also have a pretty deep knowledge of the Mill Creek area, but from the perspective of a host of other types of critters ranging from carnivores to birds to amphibians. The other day on our walk back to the rig after finishing a survey Tony stopped off at a small feeder creek and showed me some torrent salamanders. Sweet! I also enjoy pointing at random small birds and asking “what’s that?” And getting a full rundown of species, habits, seasonality, etc.
The downside of the small crew is that our survey frame is now reduced to just Mill Creek above the forks. With the exception of Baldface Creek on the North Fork Smith, which is not practical to access in winter, the vast majority of coho in the Smith spawn in the East Fork or West Branch of Mill Creek, and yes, the naming convention is strangely inconsistent here, but just go with it. But these fish do utilize different parts of the river depending on water levels and other conditions, and by focusing only on the Mill Creek forks we run a huge risk of missing important happenings in other parts of the river.
This has been an odd water year with lots of rain coming very early, then sustained rain but no other real high flows. All of this is causing the little bit of the chinook run we are seeing to behave very differently than we are used to seeing. Usually the chinook trickle in with the first rains as the rising water allows them to access the creeks. Chinook would start building a few redds by early/mid November, then peak around the end of November after which they would slowly peter out, with only a few haggard old zombie fish hanging on into mid/late December. As it is this year we have seen very little chinook spawning in November despite moderate flows and a good year for sport fishermen early in October. In November the sport fishermen’s luck ran out, but then it wasn’t until December first that we saw some spawning, then we had lots of spawning. But mostly in the West Branch.
Today we pick up a few new redds, and lots of carcasses. Salmon die after they spawn, then we swoop in and take genetic samples. We take lots of genetic samples today. When we meet up with the other crew the story is the same: a couple of new redds and lots of carcasses. So what does it all mean: are we looking at a really bad year for chinook? Did they all just spawn somewhere else? Is there more to come? These are all questions we ask ourselves to some extent every year, but this year with the tiny survey frame and no DIDSON to boot, all we have is fish stories.
The Smith River Alliance has completed the acquisition of 100 acres of land located on the South Fork Smith. Beautiful beaches, scenic vistas and approximately one-half mile of the South Fork of the Smith, a State and Federal Wild and Scenic River has been conserved. The Smith River is recognized as one of the premier Salmon Strongholds along the Pacific Coast and this project will benefit special species including coho and Chinook salmon, steelhead, Northern spotted owl, Pacific fisher, Humboldt marten, and Bald eagle.
The project also benefits local citizens – and all Californians by furthering the protection of California’s premier wild and scenic river. Future projects for the property may include a river wilderness camp – and a trail connection to the Historic Kelsey Trail. The Smith River Alliance is grateful to Rick and Kay McClendon, the California River Parkway Program, The MiaBo Fund and all of our supporters and friends who helped to make this addition to Rock Creek Ranch possible.