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Ronan's report


Wednesday, May 4th, 2011

I’m just back from the Seattle area where I was doing some stream restoration work and going for long walks on the beach with some old and new Sexyloopers.

My restoration work found me on a small tributary stream in the headwaters of the Yakima River watershed. I was there looking into ways to improve habitat conditions in a reach of stream that has been severely degraded by the effects of improper timber harvest and grazing practices.

According the the USGS, “the Yakima River flows 215 miles from the outlet of Keechelus Lake in the central Washington Cascades southeasterly to the Columbia River, draining an area of 6,155 square miles. The Yakima River Basin is one of the most intensively irrigated areas in the United States.”

Early May marks the beginning of the steelhead spawn in the upper Yakima, but if no one told you that, you’d probably never know. Fewer than 500 steelhead typically return to entire upper Yakima River basin above Roza Dam, where fish are counted. Fishing for anadromous fish like steelhead is not allowed on these waters in order to protect the few fish that make it back.

So, as I worked my way along the stream assessing habitat restoration opportunities, the last thing that I expected to see was a steelhead. But as I came upon one long shallow run, I noticed a wake moving downstream. As the fish passed over the shallow riffle tailout I got a clear glimpse of its broad back, and perfectly intact dorsal and adipose fins. The last thing I saw was the tip of a tail as the fish dropped over the lip and under a log into a tiny but deep pool. The experience lasted only a couple of seconds, but I couldn’t get the image out of my head the rest of the day. A wild steelhead.

How unlikely was it that I saw that fish? Surely one of unlikeliest sightings that I’ve ever experienced.

Consider this. A little more than 416000 steelhead came up the Columbia River system past Bonneville Dam (the dam closest to the ocean) this year. A little more than 156000 of those were wild fish. At last count, the total number of steelhead to come over Roza Dam into the upper Yakima basin this year was 259. Two hundred and Fifty Nine fish! Spread out over all the streams and rivers, all the riffles, runs and pools, in over 1900 square miles of watershed. The spot where I saw it is about 500 river miles from the ocean and nearly half a vertical mile above sea level. I spent under 10 hours walking the stream where I saw it. I was not intentionally looking for fish. The likelihood of me encountering one of those wild fish as it ascended a shallow section of stream in the middle of a cow pasture in the upper Yakima basin is about as low as I can figure. I studied math in college, but I dont know how to do this math. Had the fish been 10 feet farther upstream in deeper water, or not spooked over an extremely shallow riffle, I would have never known that it existed.

That wild steelhead is my Yakima Unicorn - an unlikely sight that I'll never forget, and perhaps my most memorable steelhead of this year’s run even though it never even saw one of my flies. I hope that fish can get as lucky as I did to see it and find a partner up there so they can spawn.

Take Care and Fish On,
Matt


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