Apr 8, 2010

The Way Home

I often wonder if these fish ever feel lost. Do they get stressed, or feel hurried when they can't find their way back home to take care of business? Or, do they just do what they do, not worry about where they are going and just trust their instincts? On a personal level, I do much better on country roads. Here's the route, maybe a left and a right and then boom, I am where I need to be. Put me in a city, with a clogged spiderweb of options and roadblocks and I can feel the temperature start to rise. My chances of getting lost and sweaty increase amongst the twisting concrete and steel. Ahha, then I reach for my map and with some studious effort, I am able to reel myself back in and eventually make it to the elusive brew pub. My instincts are OK, but I certainly can't sniff my way through the maze to my destination. Thank god for signs and maps to ease the pain when the only things you know are being lost and frustrated...
Does that late-summer run steelhead subscribe to Mapquest or Onstar? Are they able to reach for the atlas and guide their way back home? Don't think so. At least not yet. These species have evolved, just like all others to carry instincts and biological traits needed to live and complete the journeys necessary to pass on life from life. These traits in all these fish are what is needed to get from A to B and to do so comfortably and effectively. The only problem is that their evolution has not been able to adapt quick enough to the industrous proceeds that we have dealt them.

Tens of thousands of years had passed before the generations of our west-coast fish laid eyes upon the Lewis and Clark party. That is a lot of evolutionary time to get dialed in and live sustainable lives in our watersheds here. Now fastforward a few hundred years and Bam, there is a concrete barrier in the middle of the road. What now? You better adapt fish. We need these things for power generation, irrigation and water transport. Adapt or die.

We now stand in a very interesting time to see how these fish deal with changes to their habitat and passage. Obviously, stocks will never be what they once were before the advent of industrialization and seine nets, but all said, there are still quite a few fish that stream up the Columbia River waterway. Fish have learned to use ladders at the dam sites to ensure that they are able to pass up and over these obstacles. The real problem is not that their upward migration is physically blocked, but how these structures impede current flow. It is the current that lets fish know that they are on the right track. Dams suppress current flow. In places, the Columbia River more resembles a reservoir than a river. What is the effect? It is like removing all the signs on the highway, or taking that city map and throwing it out the window. They begin to lose their direction.

Another result of these obstacles is that water temperature is affected. Water that is stagnant is much more likely to heat up than water with a steady current flow. This also helps to throw fish off of their migration because they want to stay comfortable. What was once a determined run up the river, is now more of an area tour vacation, with some fish stepping into many different tributaries along the way. We want to get home, but lets stay comfortable and do a little sight seeing along the way. In mid summer as the Columbia River temp soars into the seventies, fish will hunker down way deep in the pool, or tuck into an area river to cool off you might say. The migration takes far longer these days.

This little session at the keyboard was spurned from checking into the fish counts at the Dalles Dam and up. There is still a fair amount of steelhead climbing over these dams. It is interesting to think about. Where are you all headed to? Where are you supposed to be? As spring inches closer to summer, many fish along the waterway have already dug their redds and millions of fertilized eggs lay in wait like buds on a tree. Travis Duddles, the owner of GFS brought up a thoughtful point that spawn timing really comes down to water temperature. The further east you go, the colder the water temps. So it is not overly suprising that there are still summer fish making their way to the bedroom. My mind wonders if they are still on course to have a healthy spawn. Can they still make it to the upper Clearwater or the far reaches of the Wenatchee to ensure their children will carry their homewater torch. Or, will the buzzzer go off signifying that it is time to lay down and pick a river that is closest. Will they even spawn at all?

Hatcheries have popped up along with a steady line of devastated fisheries. Whether by riparian habitat destruction, poisoning, overfishing or dam placement, hatcheries have become a way to mitigate changes in the natural environment. Evidence has shown that hatchery fish are more likely to stray from their target rivers. An article in the Osprey last year displayed that the majority of the Steelhead run in the Deschutes river is actualy made up of hatchery fish from other rivers. The instinctual imprint or fish reared in a holding tank versus fish reared in a natural, free flowing environment is, quite potentially, not as defined.

Travis also told me of an interesting story concerning this one particular hatchery fish. The fish was tagged as a Hood River fish, which means that it had made the journey up the river to the Powerdale Dam. The fish was then caught and released on the White Salmon river in Washington. Some three weeks later, this same fish was caught on the Klickitat River in Washington during a hook and line survey. Hmmm... I wonder where this fish would have taken up residence. Would it have tried to spawn naturally somewhere? If so, what does this do to native fish stocks?

Enter barging or trucking. We know that Dams do affect upstream migration but they do not eliminate it. The largest problem is how they affect downtream migration. Water that is backed up behind dams warms to unhealthy levels for juevenile fish. Many fingerlings meet their fate in the thrashing turbines inside the dam and many others come out disoriented and become easy pickings for birds and other fish. There are spill sites at all the major dams that create a downstream current and safe passage. Beginning about three years ago a federal judge ruled that the Civil Corps of Engineers and the Bureau of Reclamation maintain healthy spill levels during April and throughout the month of May. The result? 2009 was a record year for returning Steelhead and Salmon in the Columbia watershed. The other way that the Division of Fish and wildlife has resolved to aid in downstream migration is to transport fingerlings downstream on a barge or via truck. Again, the question of "Where am I supposed to be?" arises.

Think of being blindfolded and driven to a place in the woods and left there to find your way home. You might find a logging road and begin to walk but what of all the intersecting roads along the route. Right, left, straight or backwards? In a way, this has the same effect on fish as they are desensitized to their trail back home. If they make it back to the mouth of the Columbia at the end of their ocean journey, will they wait for the truck? Will they hesitate and scratch their little heads thinking: this dosen't smell like the barge... Hmmm, where is all the current flow? Right, left, straight or backwards?

The Columbia River is a very interesting river system. It is the artery to Salmon and Steelhead from all over its vast watershed. Sometimes, I wish the moments that I spend standing in her majesty would last forever. Like so many of us, I am an angler. And sometimes, the planets align and I hook a fish. Our worlds connect and before we seperate I often can't help myself from thinking, "Where are you from? Where are you going?"

Should it even matter?


  1. Nice Job Mike. Very thought provoking!
    P diddy

  2. monk dynamo, wordsmith extraordinario. strong work.


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