SUMMARY OF 2010/2011 WINTER AND FIRST MONTH OF THE 2011 SEASON AT BIG BEND POOL
Placitas, New Mexico
July 5, 2011
Friends of the wild summer steelhead of Steamboat Creek, I trust this finds you and yours all well and content.
Maggie and I are back on the pool, getting here about two weeks later than usual this season. In New Mexico about the middle of March, within a few days of a planned hiking trip to the Big Bend Area of Texas—after all, big bends need to stick together—Maggie came down with an intestinal blockage. I cancelled the trip to the Rio Grande and after four days of being mystified, I got Maggie in for surgery. What was not showing up on her X-rays, yet was sealing off her digestive tract was a peach pit. It was charcoal black in color and I think had been rolling around inside her stomach since the late summer of 2010.
My notes for September 10th of last season document Maggie throwing up two peach pits during the course of a night. Dogs, and perhaps all mammals, are capable of swallowing larger items than can pass into their small intestine where it leaves the stomach and thus are prone to blockages when they swallow indigestible items that are of the right size. Maggie is young and strong and recovered quickly and completely. I learned something however. Maggie was lucky. If a dog has a obstruction of their intestines it can turn septic quickly and should be operated on as soon as possible, that is, not after a wait of several days. Maggie’s obstruction did not turn septic and none of her intestine needed to be cut out.
One of the good things that came of this situation is that it made me aware of the fact that Maggie has fully replaced Sis in my affections. For some reason I was not yet aware of this fact.
We are back to our walks of three to five miles a day and have been for a long time. She can still outrun me in nothing flat though when she passes me her head is at waist height and she is attempting to catch hold of my left wrist to mouth it softly.
My natural history notes for last season at Big Bend Pool were my twelfth set. These notes were again around the eight-hundred page average for these documents and bring the total word count for all my notes up to approximately 3,500,000 words, three-and-a-half-million words that are as much as anything else a way to pass the time here at the pool and keep track of the behavior of the wild steelhead and to document seasonal changes.
The hard copies of these natural history notes take up twenty-three inches of space side-by-side on a shelf in this trailer. If my reports continue to be as long as they heretofore have been, in two more seasons, these volumes will take up twenty-eight inches of space on the shelf. Twenty-eight inches is the average length of the summer steelhead that return to the North Umpqua Basin each season. Without question, a wild summer steelhead is more active and interesting and much more capable of swimming thousands of miles in the North Pacific in great migratory gyres. The notes are quite capable of making the several thousand mile migratory transit to New Mexico and back in my vehicle
Note: it takes a wild Steamboat Creek steelhead four years to reach twenty-eight inches with two of these years being spent as a youngster in freshwater. It will take me at least fourteen years for my notes to take up twenty-eight inches of space on my shelf above and to the left of my computer.
We arrived at the pool on the 28th of May this year. Keith Lee towed the trailer up, bless him. Jim Van Loan and Rich Zellman—with Bo his great dog and one of my favorites—helped off-load stuff and arrange things.
The next day, Rich came up and showed me pictures of a bright fat fresh-run and unspawned thirty-six-inch male steelhead he just caught that morning (5/28/10) and released without removing it from the water. As I said, this was a fish fresh from the ocean—relatively speaking—and its fins were in perfect condition, and it was unmarked by fungus, scrapes, or cuts. This large male steelhead did, however, appear to be sexually mature with a well-developed kype, red on its gill plates, and a faint reddened stripe that ran down the side of its body.
Prior to this, the only fresh-run steelhead I have gotten a good look at this time of year have had very short snouts—with nostrils much closer to the tip of the snout than to the eyes—and no kype development at all (see photos above). When I mentioned this apparently fully sexually mature male steelhead to Frank Moore he told me that there was once a run of June-spawning steelhead in the North Umpqua River. He hadn't heard of one being caught or seen in a while. I wonder if this fish is from a relic population of this depleted spring run.
Rich told me that he wondered if catching this fish was simply good karma for helping me set up for the season here at the pool. I mentioned that I was pretty certain that steelhead didn’t believe in karma.
This past winter, my bench that was the center piece of the viewing area furnishings—and to which everything else was connected—disappeared. I have built a new bench based on a twelve-year-old memory and then have had to attach to it the furniture of my perch where I take notes. This has been awkward and pleasantly challenging because the perch furniture was idiosyncratically attached to the old bench. The next several days will tell how well I did . . . if not so well, I have another week of jury-rigging to do. One of the changes is that this bench is two-feet longer than the missing original . . . perhaps the bench has grown its own form of a kype.
According to the 2011 Washington and Oregon Fire Season Outlook, as of May 1st, snowpack in the Oregon Cascades is 187% of normal (double what it was in 2010). Prevailing marine air moving onshore this season is anticipated to cause periodic light precipitation events and cooler temperatures during 2011 (Paul Werth, Weather Research and Consulting Services, Battle Ground, Washington). These conditions are due to La Nina conditions that presently prevail in the North Pacific. As was true last season, a moist cooler summer—if that is in fact what it turns out to be—will be good for the adult summer steelhead that hold over in freshwater while they wait for their spawning time to come, doing so without feeding other than incidentally.
The spring snowmelt peak in the North Umpqua River—usually over and done with by this time of year—is still active and has a long way yet to go. The water of the North Umpqua River is much more opaque than is Steamboat Creek at this time which is unusual. Both are flowing blue-green. Creek temperatures are cooler than normal too, still measuring in the forties and low fifties. On most seasons, Steamboat Creek temperatures in this part of the basin are in the upper fifties and low sixties.
Work continues on the Soda Springs Dam fish ladder at the top of the fly water. According to Pacific Corps representatives this work will produce periodic discharges of particulates that obscure the flows of the river. Insofar as these muddying events discourage angling, they may also have a positive influence the summer steelhead, at least on an individual basis.
I have had a report that, unlike last season, the ODFW has stated that the ladder at Steamboat falls—located four miles downcreek from Big Bend Pool—is blocked. This makes the sixth season in a row that the ladder has been blocked [Yes, it was blocked last season despite assertions to the contrary by the Umpqua Basin fisheries biologist]. Please note: I have only been paying attention to whether this ladder was blocked for the last six years. When the flows of Steamboat Creek decline to acceptable levels at the ladder, the ODFW will attempt to clear it.
This season an attempt was to be made to fix the ladder at Steamboat Falls so that it no longer formed a winter and spring migration barrier to migrating Pacific salmon and other anadromous fish species. Unfortunately, the Forest Service discovered that the huge culvert that channels Deep Creek under the road into Steamboat Falls Campground was rotted through and is slowly giving way. As I understand it, the Forest Service decided to replace this culvert before allowing the heavy equipment required to work on the ladder into the campground. This has put off the ladder fix until next season (2012).
The engineering work to assess ways of fixing the ladder at Steamboat Falls was initiated by The North Umpqua Foundation in 2009.
Usually, enough steelhead have entered the pool by the middle of July to be easily seen. Given the present relatively high flows, the ODFW may be late in clearing the ladder this season and, consequently the entry of summer steelhead into residence at Big Bend Pool may occur later than usual. The first steelhead generally appear within twenty-four hours or forty-eight hours of the ladder being cleared.
Steelhead have been jumping at Steamboat Falls for almost two weeks now.
As is always the case, the best time of day for viewing the steelhead in the pool is from early to middle afternoon when shadows are off the pool, or around 1:30 to 3:30 pm.
The Foundation has decided to set Maggie and me up with solar panels to charge the trailer’s batteries and my computer batteries. This will make the pool a quieter place to be.
The fact that the spring of 2011 is late shows itself in other ways than creek levels and temperatures. For the first time, I have seen no checkerspot butterflies out and on the wing yet, though daisies are up and have been the dominant flowers up here for at least two weeks now. Normally, these two species co-occur up here. I have seen more bald eagles—only mature ones—this season than prior to this but . . . Actually, after thinking about this I have realized that normally my tarps would be up in the viewing area a lot sooner than was true this year. These tarps cut off my awareness of the presence of these big high-flying and usually silent birds. Bald eagles are among the birds that seem to be aware of me when I am at the pool and they uniformly fly by going up or downstream out of sight above the viewing area tarps from where I sit.
Blue herons, ospreys, and sometimes ravens do the same thing. It is their shadows and calls that generally give each of these birds away to me—and I try not to break my neck bending down to look up—or a visitor will see them and tell me that they have just flown by.
I have seen otters only once, though I saw what I think was a fisher and later a mink traveling along the far bank of the pool.
There are timber cuts—thinning sales—operating upcreek of Big Bend Pool in the Steamboat Creek Basin this season. This means that logging trucks and support vehicles are active on Steamboat Creek Road. So far, I see only about five or six trucks a day hauling out logs that have a maximum diameter of around two feet. The Forest Service has told me that after these thinning cuts are completed, the forests in the Steamboat Creek Basin will be left alone for the next forty years. The people associated with this thinning sale that I have seen so far have been friendly and talkative. I expect to garner some interesting tales this season.
Take care, go well,
Lee and Maggie