Saturday, February 13, 2010


My friend calls the scene below the Nimbus Hatchery "trout fishing in America." I fished there for the first time this past week. From the bluff, where this picture was taken, scores of steelhead trout can be sighted over the course of a day: travel-scarred fish holding in gravel depressions; hens flashing their silver sides when building redds; larger bucks chasing smaller bucks away from the hens and the redds they want to claim as their own. The entire spawning drama can be observed.

This is the end of their journey from the salt-water ocean to the brackish tidal marsh to the fresh-water river of their origin. For these steelhead, and the salmon who were here just weeks before them, the journey ends at the base of a dam. I worry for these fish.

Denied access to more than 125 miles of upstream spawning habitat by the dam, they depend on the 25 miles of river access left to them and a multi-million dollar hatchery for their survival. Their fate also hangs on how much water we choose to release into the river from the dam, and when it is released. Changes in flow can leave their redds high and dry or blow them out. Basically, they depend upon the kindness of strangers.

An interpretive sign on the bluff above the river shows an artist's rendering of what the river would have looked like not just before the dam, but before hydraulic mining and urban pollution, before the Gold Rush. In the painting, a black bears ambles down to the riverbank to feast on the migratory fish. Like you, I've seen photographs and video of grizzly bears feasting on salmon and sea-run trout in wild places like Alaska.

As I try to imagine bears on the banks of the Lower American, I realize the scene below me is a human variation on a theme. Like bears, the fisherman congregate at a slot the fish must squeeze through in order to get to either the river's last gravel beds or the hatchery. A narrows.

I watch as a hearty steelhead pulses through the narrows, through a gauntlet of lures and flies chucked and cast from the river bank, and disappears into the darkness of the deeper water.

Then a salmon, mottled and dark, rises up from those depths. He fins into the shallows. I watch as he noses into the current and swims behind an angler standing no more than shin-deep in the river. The spawned-out fish rolls onto his side and dies. His pectoral fin seems to reach up into the air in a final gesture of surrender.