Fish “jumping like popcorn” in recent days have signaled that anadromous steelhead trout are taking advantage of the opportunity to access White Salmon River habitat long blocked off by the presence of Condit Dam.
Southeast Washington’s Condit Dam was breached on Oct. 26, 2011, making the river accessible to upstream salmon migration for the first time in 99 years. The White Salmon flows into the Columbia River upstream of Bonneville Dam at Columbia River Mile 167.5. Bonneville, at river mile 146, is the lowermost dam on the Columbia.
The hope is that spring and fall chinook and coho salmon, and steelhead trout, might reintroduce themselves to a river closed to them since 1913 by a dam built at river mile 3.3.
Rafters and kayakers enjoying the spring freshet on the stream tumbling down from Mount Adams had been reporting the sighting of big fish, bigger than the normal resident trout, clearing the water at Husum Falls (river mile 7.6), BZ Falls (river mile 12.4) and in between. So fishery biologists from the Yakama Nation and the U.S. Geological Survey decided to check the situation out on Monday.
USGS biologist Brady Allen let his 7-year-old nephew tag along Monday as he and the Yakama Nation’s Jeannette Burkhardt made the trip up the White Salmon. Allen said his young nephew counted 23 fish jumps in a 20-minute span at BZ Falls, which is located at river mile 12.4. The falls is 20-feet high at its best, though probably rushing down at about 15 feet now in what is a declining river flow.
The dam’s breaching figured to open nearly 5 miles of spawning grounds for fall chinook, which are expected to swim as far inland as Husum Falls at river mile 7.6, and up to 33 miles for steelhead and spring chinook salmon, which are likely to be able to hurdle Husum Falls, and maybe BZ. Both species are protected under the Endangered Species Act.
“They are the athletes in the bunch,” the Yakama Nation’s Bill Sharp said of the steelhead and spring chinook.
Double Drop and Big Brother Falls, which is 25 feet high, are expected to be “show stoppers,” Burkhardt said of the salmon and steelhead upstream progression. But before Big Brother, mainstem spawning is expected. The fish are also expected to find prime spawning grounds in tributaries such as Rattlesnake and Buck creeks.
“We are able to witness the first salmon returning to the White Salmon River,” said Virgil Lewis, chairman of the Yakama Nation’s Fish and Wildlife Committee. “We see these salmon as leaders that are creating a path for other salmon to come back.”
Representatives from Yakama Nation Fisheries and USGS were on site at Husum Falls and BZ Falls.
“It is exciting to see these first fish return,” Burkhardt said. “Seeing them jump at the falls this far upstream is confirmation that salmon can re-colonize the White Salmon River.”
“Many fish bigger than resident trout were seen jumping at BZ and Husum Falls, likely adult hatchery steelhead,” said Allen. “This shows steelhead can ascend Husum and BZ Falls and the rapids upstream at least to BZ Falls.”
Multiple adult salmon were observed jumping at both Husum Falls at river mile 7.6 and BZ Falls. Both location are upstream of Condit Dam at river mile 3.3 “These salmon show us that they can migrate up the water falls and respond to the changes in habitat.” said Lewis.
Allen estimated that the jumping fish were in the 6-pound range, which would an appropriate size for fish of Skamania hatchery steelhead origin. The Skamania steelhead, which have been stocked in the lower river below the dam for many years, as recently as 2010, return to freshwater and their spawning areas earlier than other summer-run steelhead that are bound for the upper reaches of the Snake and Columbia rivers.
The program involved the outplanting of some 20,000 winter and summer steelhead smolts each year below the dam, which this summer is being removed piece by piece following the October blowout. The idea was to seed the lower White Salmon below the dam for anglers.
“I’m seen some reports of some big fish being caught” by anglers below Husum Falls, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife’s John Weinheimer said of steelhead that likely had been in the ocean for at least two years.
All of the fish identified so far upstream, either via visuals of the jumpers and/or caught by anglers, have been fin-clipped, which means they are of hatchery origin. Sport fishing regulations in the drainage require the use of barbless hooks, and the release of any unmarked, potentially, wild fish.
“The Yakama Nation has taken a different stance on that,” Sharp said, prohibiting tribal fishing in the watershed in hope that returning fish will spawn and ultimately build a self-sustaining population that will provide fisheries in the future.
The hope is that some of the hatchery returns, as well as any wild steelhead, will settle in and produce a next generation in prime spawning habitat that exists between the former dam site and Husum Falls and in the stretch between Husum and BZ. Likewise it is hoped that tule fall chinook, which have long spawned in the lower 3.3 miles of the river below Condit, will nudge upstream.
“Everything upstream of the dam is good spawning habitat” for fall chinook as well, Allen said of the accessible reaches up to Husum. It is not yet known whether the less agile tules will be able to clear the falls. It is also hoped that spring chinook from nearby tributaries to the Columbia, such as Washington’s Klickitat and the Hood across the river in Oregon, might stray into the White Salmon and start a colony there. Coho salmon would also find suitable habitat in the reopened White Salmon River.
The steelhead could also be returns from resident rainbow trout from the White Salmon that followed an urge to go to the Pacific Ocean. Steelhead and rainbow trout are the same species, with the former choosing an anadromous or ocean going life history, and the later spending their entire life in freshwater.
“It’s a tantalizing possibility,” Burkhardt said of the potential for resident trout choosing that anadromous life style and helping to recolonize the basin with native fish. Two rainbows outfitted with PIT tags as part of a USGS study in Rattlesnake Creek were identified downstream recently, one passing Bonneville Dam downstream of the White Salmon’s confluence with the Columbia and the other on East Sand Island in the lower Columbia estuary, the victim of predatory terns that next there.
“I think Rattlesnake Creek has been kicking out steelhead all along but they just don’t get back,” Allen said. Downstream passage was possible, as an example through Condit’s turbines, but passage upstream for spawners was impossible with the dam in place.
Some of the fish could also be strays headed for rivers upstream that have ducked into the White Salmon River in midsummer to escape a warming Columbia and take advantage of the cooler water rushing down from Mount Adams.
“Some of them may be dip-ins that may have just dipped in a little farther” than normal, Sharp said.
The White Salmon Working Group, which is a consortium of Yakama Nation, federal, state, and PacifiCorp biologists, estimates the White Salmon River has enough spawning grounds to accommodate more than 600 steelhead spawners and 1,200 fall chinook. Bull trout, coho, lamprey and spring chinook could also benefit from a reconnected river. Pacificorp owned the dam and opted, as part of a federal relicensing agreement and settlement with other involved parties, to remove it rather than do an expensive retrofit to provide up and downstream fish passage.
The working group is also at work to develop a monitoring program to follow up the hoped-for recolonization of the White Salmon.