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July 5, 2012 at 10:00 AM

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Steelhead spawning in the Elwha

The gray ghosts of the Elwha are back: wild steelhead, already spotted beyond the free flowing stretch of river that used to be Elwha Dam, for the first time in a century.

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A wild steelhead, relocated to the Little River, a tributary of the Elwha, and tagged so it can be tracked. Notice the radio tag. John McMillan, photo

John McMillan, fish biologist based in Port Angeles for NOAA's Northwest Fisheries Science Center of Seattle saw the 35-inch male steelhead in the Little River last month. The fish had no tag and was much bigger than the fish he and colleague Ray Moses of the Lower Elwha Kallam Tribe have been capturing, tagging and re-locating to help spark colonization of the river. This fish though found its way back on his own, probably attracted by the scent of females already relocated to the tributary, McMillan thinks.

"We saw this really large fish, we hadn't tagged anything like it, it was also in better condition than all the other fish," McMillan said. "We could only conclude it had made it up there on its own. It's like Field of Dreams," he added. As in, build it, and they will come. Or in this case, un-build it. "Not everyone gives them enough credit," he said of the wild fish. "I give them a lot of credit.

"The cool thing about that is relocating fish not only helped colonize a new place and helped save some fish, but it also attracted a new fish in there. Sometimes you put something in one place, and then his buddies find it."

McMillan and Moses have been working all spring capturing wild steelhead congregating in the outflow of the Elwha hatchery, where the water is clear. They capture the fish with a seine, put them in tanks and slow them down a bit with a drug, so they can be handled, then tag them. "The fish are really resilient," McMillan said. "If there is clear water, they will find it."

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This pair of wild steelhead is spawning in the Little River. The male is the fish at the top of the photo, with the red lateral line. Photo by John McMillan

"The fact that so many steelhead found that little stream in the lower Elwha really is interesting," McMillan said. "In future dam removal projects ensuring they can find clear water is really important. This was not a place they had homed and spawned. So the fact that we had probably 70 or 80 there all season suggests they will find clear water where it is available, they are able to find some chemical signal in the water."

Already, wild steelhead are spawning in the Little River, after being relocated there. Some are spawning with each other, and some are spawning with resident rainbow trout. And while the team didn't relocate any fish to Indian Creek, another Elwha tributary, they did see a spawning redd about a mile and a half up the channel. "It was a fish that made it past the dam on its own, and it could be that there are others out there," McMillan said.

Also seen in the river are the juvenile outmigrants from coho relocated above Elwha Dam last winter.

The female steelhead Moses and McMillan have tagged have already returned to the sea after spawning -- steelhead don't perish after spawning, as salmon do, and they can even return and spawn again. The males however have been hanging around in the Little River, hoping to mate with another female.


Female steelhead keep their bright silver color and don't waste energy on spawning colors, instead putting all their energy into egg production. John McMillan, photo

McMillan said the fish look to be in excellent condition. Their noses were a bit scuffed from hitting a fence at the hatchery -- they wanted to keep following the clear water upstream.

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This wild male steelhead is in great shape and ready to spawn. The fish made for the first clear water tributary they could find in the turbid river -- in this case the outflow from the Elwha Hatchery. Side channel tributaries of the river further upstream are expected to be important refuges for fish during dam removal.

John McMillan photo

In all, McMillan and Moses relocated fish about six times since the wild winter steelhead migration began in later April. It is tapering off now after getting a late start, because of cold weather. They are tracking the fish about three times a week in the Little River. Of the 65 fish they tagged and relocated, about 15 of them are rainbow trout.

Next. the team will start snorkel surveys in Elwha side channels to look for offspring of coho relocated last winter. In all, they moved about 600 fish, all hatchery coho that had returned to the facility. The team radio tagged about 50 of the coho and relocated them to the main stem of the Elwha, the Little River, and Indian Creek.

Interestingly, some fish cruised back over the lower dam, which was still in the river at that time, and returned again to the hatchery. One fish went back four times! The homing instinct, apparently, can be as strong, or stronger, than the urge to colonize new ground.

One thing the team also noticed: They found very few coho carcasses, indicating that animals were quick to take advantage of the food source returned to them. The team saw tracks of mink, bear, and raccoon. They saw water ouzels feeding on salmon eggs.

"The animals have something to take advantage of they didn't before," McMillan said.

For other animals, dam removal for now is a losing proposition. Herons, mergansers, and harlequin ducks that normally would be seen in and along the river are missing, McMillan said. The reason is simple: the river is too cloudy right now for them to find their food, McMillan said

"They have to be able to see to make a living."

Meanwhile dam removal at Glines Canyon took a dramatic step forward this week as construction crews filled part of the remaining structure with dynamite and blasted away a big chunk.

To learn more about the Elwha restoration, read my stories in the Seattle Times.

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