Mid Skagit tributary steelhead spawning report

by Bill McMillan

A most interesting weather year and steelhead response at the Mid Skagit tributaries.  I had anticipated a very down year due to indications from the Columbia River last year for A-run steelhead, coho in 2015/16, general reports of low steelhead returns this year on the Olympic Peninsula and southern BC, poor reports from a number of areas on the Oregon Coast, projections for record low B-run steelhead to the Columbia for this year, and lack of winter steelhead to the Willamette system this winter/spring.  It looked to be a potentially poor year here as well based on steelhead redd evidence to early April, but from mid-April to the end of April the redd numbers have leapt up and it now appears it will be a better than average year at O’Toole and Finney creeks, with a continuing trend at these two creeks as the past two years.  It will not likely be as large a return year as last year, but may be similar to the 2015 steelhead redd counts – at least as far as the redds that can be found.  The latter is especially true at Finney Creek, where day after day the flows have remained uncomfortably high for being able to wade across the creek in very many places and with flow discoloration that is commonly only 14-20” visibility, with the rare day of 20-24” visibility, and only one day the past 3 months-plus that there was 24-26” visibility as needed for counting redds that occur in deeper locations.  As a result, the Finney counts that I have made only covered half to a third of the length of stream that I have counted the past two years.  Despite the limitations, as of end of April, a total of 36 steelhead redds were counted in the sections I was able to make counts.  Skagit System Cooperative folks have been making counts in upper Finney beyond where I am able to physically access anymore, which will be a most helpful addition, although their counts have been similarly hampered by flow conditions to date.  I have not included their counts in the redd count information attached.  The peak of Finney and O’Toole steelhead redd counts is typically late April to mid-May, depending on year.  As should be anticipated, this is a very late year given the stream temperature and flow conditions that have dominated to date.  Therefore, at Finney and O’Toole, the probable peak in spawning is yet to come.

As in the past 2 years, the other three creeks (Savage, Mill, and Dry creeks) have not shown increases in steelhead spawning from the prior 5 years.  The reasons for this were covered in the extensive multiple part reports made for the surveys from 2010-2016 (7 years of comparative surveys).  However, it remains that the early return trends have remained at Savage and Mill creeks, taking into consideration that it was a very late year in which early spawning was hampered by ice and snow that made entry to them largely impossible most of January and was not conducive in February due to continual high and cold flows.  Dry Creek (or Coho Ck as called by some), however, has been nearly a no-show for steelhead spawning.  The photographs and explanations included in the attachment tell much of the reason why.  Dry Creek was ice-bound until Jan 14th, and then it had a series of high flow events that significantly altered its entry to Finney Creek.  Finney Creek itself cut further into its NE bank (opposite Dry Ck) and which left part of the former channel at Dry Creek’s entry abandoned except at high Finney flows.  The combination of these two occurrences left Dry Creek’s entry to Finney Creek as a very shallow and broadly dispersed flow across the long gravel deposition bar which has been too shallow to allow steelhead entry for spawning except at high flows that discourage entry for spawning due to the high water velocity.  On April 6th, without a single steelhead redd found at Dry Ck at that time, I pulled a moderate sized log left along the bank to the RL side of the broadly dispersed flow at Dry Ck (just above entry to Finney Ck) and angled it out into the stream to deflect more of the flow toward the slightly deeper RR side of its Finney entry.  On return 2 days later it had seemingly worked to some extent with the added flow scouring down into the RR side 2-3” deeper.  Nevertheless, it remained a very shallow 20’ of dispersed flow to reach safer upstream migration depth for steelhead.  At least 3 steelhead redds were built in Finney very close to Dry Creek’s entry from mid-April to end of April, and finally one redd was found in Dry Ck about 200 yds above the mouth on April 23rd – so one female did make entry.  The proximity of the redds built in Finney to Dry Creek may result in juveniles that still imprint on the outflow of Dry Creek, which became an interesting consideration of considerable likelihood given the location of those 3 redds.  And certainly the hyporheic flow from Dry Creek is over a broadly extensive section in that area which provides further imprinting potential to Dry Ck for future steelhead return years.

As indicated from a number of angler accounts, there was a reasonably good catch and release of early winter steelhead that occurred in January this year.  I initially could not tell if this was merely a matter of a very few steelhead being caught multiple times due to high angling intensity, or if there was a little better than usual return in January.  I still do not know, but what is known is that there is relatively good return of winter steelhead again this year at Finney and O’Toole creeks.

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