Northwest streams are flowing at or near record lows for this time of year — roughly two months before late summer/early fall’s annual nadir — and fish are dying due to hot water and low dissolved oxygen levels in some waters.
On Saturday, my son Kiran and I surveyed conditions on Western Washington’s Skykomish, Wallace and Sultan — Snohomish County rivers I’ve known most of my life.
I can report that we only saw one dead fish — at the Wallace hatchery’s adult salmon trap — but we did find what were likely young steelhead, coho and Chinook in tiny pools cut off from the main Sky.
As it is just mid-July, it is pretty worrisome stuff because of the long-term forecast and more salmon inbound.
Here are photos from our day:
Kiran has the grim news — hot days, low flows, shrunken rivers, lots of river bank exposed. While that is not unusual, that it is occurring so early is. The Skykomish, among many basins, saw a low snowpack, which melted quickly because of hotter-than-normal weather.
A lot of big boulders are exposed at the mouth of Proctor Creek on the Sky. The U.S. Geological Survey gauge roughly a mile below where this panorama was taken showed that the river was running at roughly 425 cubic feet per second on Saturday, 2,700 cfs below average for the date and twice as low as the old record minimum, set back in 1940.
Kiran spies young wild salmon and steelhead trapped in pools. Without a fine-mesh net or a prybar to open a way for the fish to get into the main river, they could be doomed unless rains come — a chance of showers is in the forecast at midweek.
Proctor Creek, which drains a valley between Mts. Persis and Haystack, disappears into gravel just below this point.
I have fished this hole on the Sky in winter, but from the other bank and with flows at least five times as high. (I also once rode in a drift boat through those crazy rocks above the pool.) It was interesting to get a better glimpse into the water. One of the state’s fishery managers told me last week, if you have ever wondered what your river’s base flow is, this is that moment. However, I couldn’t spot any of the spoons or jigs I’ve lost here. Late last week, WDFW restricted angling hours or closed fishing on over three dozen streams in Washington, including the Skykomish, to reduce stress on native salmon, steelhead, trout and char. In August and September, the pilot fish of 1-million-strong pink salmon run will enter the Snohomish, which the Sky drains into.
A panorama of the depths of the pool on the Sky at Proctor Creek, a famous fishing hole for winter steelhead. It is amazing how big some of the rocks are here — bobber-and-jig country.
The Wallace runs low and clear below the bridge at Startup. A fair number of summer Chinook had made it to the hatchery holding pond, but I spotted three in a pool below a very bony riffle. Wallace Falls above Gold Bar appeared shrunken.
Kiran looks into a dry raceway at the state hatchery on the Wallace. Spigots feed fresh water into other raceways occupied by fish. Low flows and warm water could also affect hatchery rearing.
Young hatchery fish mill in a raceway at the state facility on the Wallace.
Schmutz, for lack of a better word, gathers just above the trap on the Wallace.
Leaves fall off trees all the time, but it seemed like I saw more than I’d expect for this time of year, a sign of the drought. These alder leaves float in the Sultan, near my old house on Trout Farm Road, and one of a handful of Westside rivers where flows actually approximate normal for this time of year, thanks to Culmback Dam and Spada Lake in its headwaters.
A tongue of the Sultan where the tributary reaches the Sky. This is a favorite launch for anglers — that is once-famous Cracker Bar on the other bank — but this stretch of the river has been closed to fishing until further notice.
Regionwide, our waters have become hazardous to fish. Salmon are dying in the Willamette and Columbia — something like 200,000 sockeye are missing between Bonneville and McNary Dams — and long-lived sturgeon are suffering and dying too. Even if we have dammed many rivers and there’s lots of relatively cool water available, realistically, there is not much we can do over the coming months except pray for rain. And consider how to mitigate against a repeat of these conditions in the future.
In the midst of yet another set of 90-plus-degree days, it feels and seemingly is starting to look like Arizona around here.