Rainbows on the High Desert

Rainbows of the High Desert – Harvesting Nature

I fished my first desert stream when my good friend and fly-fishing sensei, Chas Kyger, moved to Washington State. Both transplants from the Appalachian hometown, we interestingly ended up three hours apart working as fish biologists.

Spring can offer formidable conditions in the Pacific Northwest mountains, where high flows and snow melt careen through narrow canyon creeks. Spring on a desert creek, however, can be epic, with early warming waters and insect hatches.

A hard left from the Columbia River pointed us toward a large desert canyon, characterized by steep, rocky bluffs, talus, and sagebrush. Various alfalfa, wheat, and corn crops created a lush patchwork landscape across the canyon floor broken only by the random cattle or horse pasture.

The creek bottom through the valley was a mere ditch with cattails sucking up the last of any moisture lingering in the cracked, astringent landscape. Skepticism ran high as 30 years of fly-fishing and fisheries science taught me that streams gain flow as they lose elevation. Contradictory can be the case in dry country.

Finding ourselves abruptly at road’s end, staring at a shabby ranch home with heavy equipment scattered about, it appeared we missed the trail into public land. Better judgement would have heeded the brown sign with binoculars on it, now some miles in the rearview.

Circling back and taking a right turn into oblivion, it was unclear whether we were on public or private. Fording a creek and passing a fifth-wheel “ranch home” while dodging an excitable border collie, the decision was made to kick in the four-wheel-drive and ascend the red, rocky bluffs separating the headwaters beyond from the bottomlands.

The flat, torrid landscape atop the rocky rims appeared desolate and unfriendly to the touch, colored in various hues of auburn and bister. Heat waves shimmered upon the caustic environment. Everything appearing scorching hot and sharp to the touch. The creek canyon formed a precipitous crevasse in the desert floor.

Peering into the narrow canyon, a trickle of water more than a hundred feet below was our destination. Without need of further inspection, vests and waders were donned, and with fly rods in hand, we bailed over the steep, dusty slope. Fortunately, and to our surprise, a staggering creekside oasis lay in store.

The creek was characterized by deep cuts through large boulders and gray slab bedrock, worn smooth by enduring eons of nature’s erosive processes. Scenic cascades separated by deep plunge pools babbled with clear, cool desert spring water, shaded by tall, overhanging grasses. Moments passed as we ogled the creek, like teenage boys at the beach, before finally putting the moves on some classic trout water.

Kneeling behind and leaning against a boulder the size of a Volkswagen Bug, a haphazardly-lobbed #8 elk hair caddis stimulator flopped into the pool that lay beyond. A small plunge at the head dampened any ability to hear a rise. Carefully peeking from behind the boulder, a visible wake erupted.

An instinctive hookset embedded the fly into one of the fattest twelve-inch rainbow trout I have ever laid eyes on. After making several strong runs about the tiny pool, the trout darted for fast water, busting down a cascade, Columbia River bound.  It’s dashing run put a hard whip in the little three-weight Temple Fork Outfitter before reluctantly coming to the net in the next pool downstream.

In the span of a mile, another ten-inch fish, fat and spunky with a blazing red lateral stripe, and countless dinks, six-inches or less, succumbed to the classic caddis pattern. A few other typical classics worked well enough, including a #12 parachute Adams, but the whopping caddis stimulator duped more fish than any other.

Most casts, a trout rocketed from the depths, sometimes followed by several others, eager to claim the meal for themselves as the fly hit the water. As if their last meal was the summer before and having no certainty of another.

It’s funny how long a day at the office can feel, yet the hours on good trout water evaporate like morning dew in Death Valley. Feeling as though the day had just begun, the sinking sun put an end to an exceptional day spent deep in the bowels of the red canyon walls.

Among the perks of fishing small desert streams, any skill level can experience an epic day. Fishing with big flies in small water for aggressive fish can be quite forgiving of imperfect presentation. Just as well, 5X tippet is a staple, providing tremendous versatility and strength, suitable to handle overzealous hook sets and retrieving flies hung in riparian vegetation.

This curious little gem of desert trout heaven made a believer of this cynical Appalachian boy. While there is no replacement for a high mountain trout stream, aggressive desert rainbows are a worthy opponent, opening the season a few months early, while the mountain waters rage with a melting snow pack.

The June Hogs of the Columbia Basin

Our jet sled bobbed near the infamous “Buoy 10” in the mouth of the Columbia River. It was a stormy September afternoon with angry Pacific surf bullying its wave action far upriver. Coho were the target, yet no one aboard complained at the prospects of landing anything willing to trounce the cut herring corkscrewing behind the boat as we drifted.

Kicking back, we enjoyed the ride, and experience of fellow fishermen jumping hurriedly for a bent rod, ripped from the complacency of a lull in the action and casual conversation. I had passed a dozen salmon to the three other anglers. They finally insisted the next bite was mine.

Diving for the gunnel as the port side rod doubled hard on the strike, drag began spooling noisily from the reel. The run was fast and strong, unlike the coho hook-ups of the day. Only a Chinook (king) salmon can pack a tuna-like punch into a chrome freshwater torpedo.

Following the initial run, the 26-inch king came in quickly. Not my first king, but certainly the most striking. Dime-bright scales glistened under the overcast sky as if the fish had been dipped in glitter. It’s dorsal was painted in muted teal, and it’s black speckling popped like sequins. It was no “June Hog”, but an unforgettable fish, nevertheless.

A small Columbia River “Buoy 10” King fresh from the salt.

June Hogs, on the other hand, have earned their place in natural and sporting history as king salmon of the Columbia Basin past. Before commercial fisheries and dams made their way to the Columbia River, kings breaching 100 pounds swam over 1,000 miles to their spawning grounds in British Columbia. Genetically speaking, these fish were the same kings that continue to return to the Columbia River year after year, but a population that grew five or more years in the Pacific Ocean before returning to spawn.

Much larger fish than those of lower river populations, historic accounts suggest they reached nearly 50 inches in length and were football-shaped, their bodies rich with fat stores. Their long journey inland led these fish to enter the Columbia River in early summer, earning the moniker June Hog. But the trek to their natal tributaries took time with spawning occurring in late summer or early fall.

Once a Native American subsistence staple, the superior quality and flavor these massive fish quickly became a prized food item for all as the west was developed. The first canaries on the Columbia River opened in the mid-1800s. A grand haul by the Seufert Brothers Cannery in The Dalles, Oregon landed 2.5 million cans of “Royal Chinook” in an Astoria, Oregon warehouse around the turn of the century. The table fare of the June Hogs deserving of the “Royal” marketing crown. At the peak of the run, canneries could pull several tons each day via fish-wheel.

The Seufert Brothers Cannery floor after a decent haul. (Photo Credit: Oregon Historical Society)

With harvest affecting the salmon populations, the average size of the June Hogs began to decline by the early 1900s, decreasing as much as 50 percent by 1922. Thirty pounds was once the bottom end of their weight range, but today, a 30-pound Columbia River Chinook is news-worthy.

Modern fishery management and harvest has resulted in an increased proportion of “jacks”, which are basically trout-sized salmon, that return within a year of migrating to the ocean, and may never have left the Columbia River estuary. But the final blow to the massive June Hogs came long ago in the form of Grand Coulee Dam.

Built without fish passage, the June Hogs racing for British Columbia were stopped cold at Grand Coulee by 1940. The populations spawning downstream in Washington tributaries were able to do so successfully with a more modest size and fat stores, their migration being half as long or difficult.

The June Hogs of historic proportions may never grace the Columbia Basin again, yet, kings in the 20-pound range are still common. Last month, I wound my way through the visitor center halls at Ice Harbor Dam and stood in awe at the fishway viewing window. Kings of all sizes cruised by, shooting nervously through the fish counting slot. According to the counting booth attendee, the kings are returning well thus far in 2021, but the overall projection for the spring run is lower than last year.

At present, myriad challenges are pressuring salmon and steelhead populations through the Pacific Basin. While special interest groups lobby against the lower Snake Rive dams, they fail to present the big picture, meaning dams are but a piece of the complicated salmon life history puzzle. Ecosystem-wide reform of fishery and harvest management, habitat restoration, invasive species management, and other environmental improvements are necessary in concert to achieve genuine population “recovery”.

Nevertheless, salmon are resilient, enduring all we’ve thrown at them for more than a century. With mindful management among stakeholders, and improvements in environmental conditions, the kings of the Columbia Basin will persist.

The Phenological Calendar of Kokanee

The Phenological Calendar of Kokanee – Harvesting Nature

Whether you realize it or not, most outdoor enthusiasts are phenological scientists. You may never have published in a peer-reviewed scientific journal or even considered proper phenology as practical in everyday life. Maybe you’ve never even heard of phenology. But if you appreciate the outdoors or even just vegetable gardening, chances are, you’re a seasoned phenologist.

Simply put, phenology is a branch of science dealing with the correlation between climate and environmental cues, and periodic biological phenomena such as fish spawning, deer and elk rut, songbird migration, and upland bird nesting seasons.

For example, the big game hunter reads the moon phase and weather patterns to estimate the peak of the rut for hunt planning. Anglers keep an eye on snowmelt and spring runoff timing and water temperature to predict migration and spawning periods for fishes like salmon, bass, and walleye. My wife keeps an annual calendar of weather and plant bloom patterns to phase seed starts into her vegetable garden.

As a professional scientist, it’s only natural that I also rely on phenological cues to plan outdoor activities, fishing being the most common.

A downrigger set at 30 feet maintains a small dodger and squid bait in the pursuit for kokanee salmon.

Spring in the arid lands of the Pacific Northwest is an incredible season, rich with the hues of our natural landscape responding to longer and warmer days. Brilliant canary-yellow clusters of arrowleaf balsamroot, cotton-topped common yarrow, fuchsia cushions of longleaf phlox, and the snowstorm of black cottonwood and white alder seeds wafting on the breeze all hint at the timing for fishing desert lakes.

By mid-May, I’ve been chasing trout among the puddles of the Washington scablands. But as the water temperature warms, my thoughts drift to kokanee, advancing in their early summer patterns.

When balsamroot clusters speckle the shrub-steppe, glowing like yellow lava perforations among the sagebrush, it’s time to drop a downrigger and squid bait behind a dodger for those silver-bullet, landlocked sockeye.

While rubber squid are not exactly a natural food source in the seep lakes, a small, orange, eyed skirt with tiny trailer hooks tipped with scented corn (inexplicably) does the trick when trolled behind a small dodger. Downriggers make it easy to target a specific depth, and this technique becomes more successful as the lakes stratify and food sources concentrate.

Lakes in Washington’s channeled scablands registered around 55 degrees Fahrenheit at the surface in mid-May. Cool enough that the kokanee scattered about the depths from approximately 12 to 75 feet. Additionally, the cold water had the fish finnicky to start the day, making their half-hearted bait bumps nearly unnoticeable on lines clipped to a downrigger ball. But a rod with a two-ounce weight dropped off the back of the boat provided quick adjustment to encounter fish at many depths, as well as greater sensitivity to strikes, landing a limit of “kokes” in short order as fish warmed up, committing to the bait.

Kokanee are typically small, but beautiful and delicious, and worthy of a relaxing day on the water.

Kokanee are sought for their table fare first and foremost. Small fish tugging against heavy tackle doesn’t produce the most inciting of battles, and their weak mouths make them difficult to land if they fail to inhale to bait. Additionally, as fish strike the trolling squid, they typically hook themselves. It may take a few fish to get over the instinct to set the hook, but simply reeling up and keeping the pressure on can be most effective for landing fish.

Kokanee action in June can be more reliable as fish narrow into their preferred depth and become more active with warmer water. Bigger fish can be found in some lakes with a little research, but a passel of 10 to 12-inch kokanee is typical and perfectly suited for a smoker, oven rack, or frying pan, and sublimely paired with a Pinot Gris or Chardonnay, and fresh asparagus spears from the garden. Another phenological sign of the time to kick back in the boat and coax up the tasty (albeit tiny) freshwater salmon of the frigid depths.