Steelhead Spawner Surveys
Words By Scott Willison
It’s like someone flipped a switch. Half days of wandering the lengths of Day and Finney Creeks, searching expectantly for something new, a redd, a fish, some itinerant sign of life. Nothing, nothing, a little more and then one day a flurry of activity…everything happening at once.
That was a day in early May this year on our North Sound TU steelhead spawner surveys. I started on Finney Creek mid morning. Upon entering the wide bar as the creek bed opens up from an increasingly overgrown trail, I immediately found a new redd in the first tailout, and then another and another. Sometimes you can stare indefinitely at a curious pock mark in the streambed, contemplating hydraulics, algal growth, substrate and the temporal ups and downs of water flow before making the call that it’s a redd or not. Today’s decisions were much more straightforward; clean scoured gravel, almost glowing neon white in the green-hued current, probably a few days to a week old at most. Things were happening. Further upstream, I noticed a dark shape moving in the current. Creeping closer and trying not to set off any alarms, I got pretty close to a big fire truck colored male steelhead, ghosting in the middle of a large flat. He was pretty beat up, white fungal spots on his head and swimming a little rough around the edges. I got within ten feet of him before he woke up and scurried off into some hidey hole at the head of the run. I found several more fresh redds upstream before finishing the survey beat and wandering down the gravel road back to my truck.
I headed back toward the South Skagit Highway and downriver to meet up with Bridget Moran and survey Day Creek. We parked and meandered across the meadow to survey a side channel and look for new spawning activity. The braid was on the low side and we didn’t see much until we reached the mouth where the channel connects with the rest of Day. Here we observed a handful of older steelhead redds that were still well defined but beginning to gloss over with light sediment and algae. While we didn’t see much in the way of new spawning activity along the course of our Day Creek survey reach, the water was bristling with life. In the off channels and rivulets, swarms coho and chinook , possibly some steelhead fry darted here and there, dominating the well-shaded tangles of roots and overhanging brush. A blanket hatch of large, dark-bodied mayflies fluttered above the creek in numbers more akin to a Rocky Mountain tailwater than what we typically find in our western Cascades streams. Day is filled with deep, tannin-stained pools and laced with rock ledges, one perfect steelhead hideout after another, though we seldom see fish. Toward the end of our survey, we caught a brief glimpse of a big dark hen holding near a logjam. She was difficult to see, but her big square tail wavered revealingly as the brief windows opened up in the current. We crossed the creek and watched her for awhile from the high bank and got a good long look at her. It was pretty cool.
All in all a pretty productive survey before the unseasonable heat warmed things up to the point where the water was running high and off color. Bridget was even brave enough to go for a swim on Day Creek, though it wasn’t entirely planned. At least it wasn’t a terrible afternoon to fill up the waders. While our surveys are winding down for the year, we’ll be back out there in the next month to collect temperature data from our stream loggers and move them for the summer as the water drops.