“Gold fever is very, very real,” says small-scale miner Ron Larson in a recent news story that previews a developing battle in Washington.
In recent years, neighboring states have pinched down on suction dredging, which can affect salmon and steelhead and their habitat, but the practice is said to be increasing in the Evergreen State due to relatively lax oversight.
Once upon a time, my family not only fished the Sultan River, we prospected for gold in it.
One of my uncles would have nodded knowingly to hear Larson’s words. All of his life, Doug Kay had the fever, and my folks’ old place near the end of Trout Farm Road provided a good jumping-off point for his weekend expeditions into the canyon of the Snohomish County stream.
We hauled in pans and picked the grit out of crevices in the flood-washed rock walls in hopes of finding glints of the precious metal.
We did find a few flakes, carefully storing them in tiny glass vials.
At least once that Mom and I can recall, Uncle Doug brought a suction dredge. The models these days look not unlike my pontoon boat, if I were to outfit it with a 9-horse outboard and French-drain-sized pipes, and they’re far more efficient machines for sorting pay dirt from sand and gravel than swirling and swishing it around in a pan by hand.
Somewhere between our old house and the Sultan Basin is a source of gold that has intrigued miners like Uncle Doug for decades, while up in the basin — itself a ridge or two away from that fabled “broad bold ledge of gold” of the Monte Cristo mining district — is the defunct Kromona Mine.
There’s gold in them thar hills.
And there’s also fish in that there river.
I remember watching kings, coho and humpies skittering through the Sultan’s rapids, and how once one bit my old dog Blue.
I remember watching two salmon dig a redd; years later in tenth grade biology class, I used that as proof we could have logging and fish. Mr. Dahlem said my argument needed a lot more evidence than a single observation.
I remember once having a field day on “rainbows” that were probably steelhead smolts that our neighbor Tommy Thompson must have just let go from the rearing ponds he raised them in for the state. Working the hole at what is now the Sultan’s upper boat ramp I caught fish after fish on a green Rooster Tail.
Years later, prospecting for steelhead above and below the powerhouse, I came across an angler who’d just returned to his rig with a nice one.
How far upstream had he gone to catch it? Up where Uncle Doug’s gold flecks came from?
While there’s ore-bearing rock up there, I don’t think there’s a lot of spawning gravel in the canyon. But still, I’d like to explore that water someday for wild winters to catch and release.
The aforementioned suction mining news story describes a practice that might use some more oversight, though you also can’t just fire up the dredge and go in Washington.
“Current regulations stipulate that miners can only dredge outside of spawning times and only in the part of the river with the greatest flow,” reports OPB’s Nils Cowan. “They can only use hoses up to a 4-inch diameter and must stay at least 200 feet from other dredging operations. And when they’re done they must refill any holes they made, restoring the river to the state in which they found it.”
Even so, the on-the-river/in-the-process reality of that can be jarring.
In an video accompanying the story, Trout Unlimited’s Gregg Bafundo looks at a small pit miners have made in the bed of and to the side of low-running Peshastin Creek in Chelan County last summer and says, “This looks like a bomb went off.”
Because of last winter’s miserable snowpack and the likelihood that low flows were concentrating fish in small thermal refuges, in mid-August WDFW took the rare step to bar or restrict suction dredging in Peshastin and other streams —- a full month after the agency first told anglers to lay off the fish or only chase them before 2 p.m., and after the annual dredging window had actually closed on some like the lower Sultan.
Mark Johnston, a tribal fisheries biologist with the Yakama Nation, acknowledges to reporter Cowan that pits like that could create something of a thermal refuge for the fish.
But at the same time, the material that the miners are sucking into their dredge is about the size of gravel that salmon and steelhead would have laid their eggs in. And while the silt that’s stirred up might include some insect larvae or crawdads for downstream fish to eat, it also adds turbidity, which can be a problem on smaller streams.
I admit there will always be a part of me that casts a speculative eye on rock seams and gravel bars, wondering if there’s gold to be had inside.
But my question these days is, are we gonna be serious about recovering Endangered Species Act-listed fish stocks or not? As an angler, I’m seeing how we are — hatchery steelhead are no longer released in the Sultan, and salmon retention isn’t allowed there. It’s similar on many small streams.
Panning for gold seems not unlike fishing for steelhead in that they’re both enjoyable pastimes with rare payoffs and should be allowed to be continued in perpetuity where they make sense.
As for suction dredging, as has happened in California, Oregon, Idaho and BC, the debate in Washington will be for folks far more powerful than myself to settle.