Russian River Hope

In California by steelheaders

 The 4 “H’s” interrupted: An Interlude for Steelhead Conservation

By Derek Campbell

It’s Winter now and maybe this shouldn’t be a surprise but I’ve got steelhead on my mind. This might be because I’ve been able to take part in several exciting steelhead-focused conservation initiatives this Fall. It may be that it’s just that time of year when steelhead fishing is at its best and on every NUntitledorth Coast fly fishers mind. Or maybe because I finally caught my first adult steelhead on a fly this Fall.

For whatever reason, it’s worth focusing on the hope and the challenges that this last year has brought. As our club is well-aware, the Russian River used to be the premier steelhead fishery on the North Coast. It combined strong runs with predictable Winter conditions and good access. Good real-time stream data was available from institutions like Kings Tackle and the fishing community was vibrant enough to spawn well-known characters like Bill Schaadt and Russell Chatham.   The high-water mark was in the 1940’s and 1950’s and by the 60’s, the steelhead were well on their way to the shadow of a fishery they provide now. That history is part of the reason why the Russian River Fly Fishers organized in the early 70’s and maintain wild fisheries conservation as one of its 3 founding Primary Objectives.

The Why of that change and What is being done about it are what I want to talk about in this article, because for all of the crimes against nature committed, I believe that there is hope.


First, the challenges. While it is discouraging to see fishermen hauling wild steelhead out of dried-up pools on the Russian and Garcia, harvest issues (the first of the 4 “H’s” of fisheries conservation) are a small part of the problem. In the October 2015 issue of California Fly Fisher, Russell Chatham writes eloquently and forcefully that “catch-and-release is a pointless mantra in the conservation of (a healthy population of) migratory steelhead and salmon”.  With no real commercial fishery for steelhead, the gill netters, purse seiners and long liners certainly cannot be blamed. That is anathema for someone of my generation who grew up with nothing but a C&R narrative in books and magazines. But Chatham backs it up with data and his experience on our waters during and after the good times. I’ve certainly experienced it myself on the remaining healthy stocks of pink and chum salmon in the Puget Sound.


The 2nd “H”, Hatcheries, are the current conservation boogeyman right now, and with good reason. As I’ll highlight in a future Cast article, there is much wrong with our current hatchery management system. But with only one hatchery in our watersheds that was installed well after the major declines began, this doesn’t seem like the primary causal issue.


Dams aren’t helping (the “H” comes from Hydropower). According to the Russian River Wild Steelhead Society, there are currently 509 licensed dams and many other unlicensed obstructions to the flow of water in the Russian River basin. Most dams in the basin are on tributaries where they degrade critical spawning and rearing habitat. Dams and water diversions tend to decrease habitat and increase water temperatures downstream. They also block movement of sediment limiting downstream spawning gravel. But the biggest impediment to upstream spawning grounds in our watershed, the Warm Springs Dam at Lake Sonoma, was installed in 1982, long after the fishery was already in free-fall.


So, what is the problem for steelhead in the Russian River watershed? As I’ve written about before, the Big “H” for anadromous fish in our local watersheds is Habitat. I break that down to what I’ll call my “4 D’s of Russian River Habitat Destruction”: Diversions, Dredging, Deforestation, and Development. Note I don’t include an obvious 5th “D”: Drought. Because the reality is local salmon and steelhead stocks evolved to handle the periodic droughts that our environment goes through. It’s the first 4 “D’s” that make drought conditions a killer these days. Dennis P. Lee defines conservation as “wise use of natural resources”. In that light, the history of Sonoma County natural resource management could be described as “squandering”, the opposite of conservation. Devastating floods in the mid-50’s were magnified by decades of old growth logging in the watershed. Unrestricted gravel mining in the main river combined with the loss of habitat above the Lake Mendocino dam in 1958 and water diversions from high population and agricultural growth have made it a challenge to ever return to the previous abundance.


Now for the Hope. It’s not too late for the Russian River watershed and there are a lot of people who care passionately about our steelhead.

In November, The Redwood Empire chapter of Trout Unlimited hosted Rob Masonis, one of the founders of the Wild Steelheaders United initiative. He described fisheries conservation as the “art of the possible”. That pragmatic viewpoint has led WSU to focus on getting stakeholder feedback, using science to guide controlled experiments, and taking on controversial topics like reformation and wise use of the hatchery system. This has obviously resonated with more than 3000 new members in the initiatives first year and notable wins like the successful promotion of more rational regulations in Washington’s Olympic Peninsula. Successes like this have been built from listening to the fishermen. A recent study of all steelhead fishers (not just fly fishers) showed that almost two-thirds favored more restrictions on fishing gear, C&R for wild fish when populations are low, and balanced hatchery operations that keep healthy rivers free from hatchery stocks. Those who fish for steelhead are obviously no dummies, no matter their politics or preferred fishing style.



To add to this, TU sponsored a Steelhead Science for Anglers Workshop series with presentations in Long Beach and Davis. The Davis Workshop hosted serious heavyweights in fisheries conservation from UC Davis, Cal Trout and TU. In particular, Peter Moyle, the dean of West Coast fisheries conservation, gave the introductory overview of steelhead biology and the state of steelhead in California. Dr. Moyle of UC Davis is perhaps second only to Robert Behnke in Western trout and salmon science and conservation. He was followed up by a serious run into steelhead genetics by another UC Davis professor, Dr. Mike Miller, and then presentations on statewide conservation activities by Cal Trout (Dr. Sandi Jacobson) and TU (Dr. Rene Henery). John McMillan, Science Director for TU’s WSU initiative summed up why steelhead science should matter to us this way: “Any given steelhead population may support upwards of 30-36 life histories, the most of any salmon, trout, or char. In short, diversity is their calling card. More life histories = more population resilience = more consistent annual run size = more fishing opportunity”.


Further local signs of hope: In 2015, North Bay TU built on over 30 years of restoration work in the Lagunitas Creek watershed by completing a significant habitat enhancement project in Devil’s Gulch, a key tributary. NBTU, together with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, the Marin Municipal Water District, California State Parks, Doug Gore, Patagonia, and Dragonfly Consulting, restored woody structure in eight locations along this creek, reversing some of the impacts of past logging activity in the area by providing pools and cover, keeping the creek cool and allowing fish to hide from predators. The Russian River Wild Steelhead Society recently completed the first phase of a large woody debris introduction project on the lower river. The Redwood Empire chapter of TU is trying to re-invigorate its members and organize around a unifying local conservation theme in the Russian River watershed. And Cal Trout’s Jacob Katz and others are proposing to restore the lower river floodplains by using vineyards as fish nurseries and groundwater recharge ponds during the Winter (Made Local Magazine, Sept/Oct. 2015).

So, what can you do? Get involved:

  1. Join TU Wild Steelheaders United and sign their credo.
  1. Join the Russian River Wild Steelhead Society. Attend the RRWSS 8th Gathering of Great Steelheaders in March 2016 to support their activities.
  2. Re-join the Redwood Empire chapter of Trout Unlimited and make your voice heard about the need for major habitat improvement projects in our Russian River watershed and the desire to work together for steelhead conservation.
  3. Attend Lake Sonoma Steelhead Festival on February 13, 2016. Come out and meet many of our local watershed managers and conservation organizations. Ask them to work harder to restore our steelhead and what we might do to help.

Lake Sonoma