Five years of California drought have been erased in a couple months as a conveyor belt of storms continues to punish the state. The wettest winter in decades is also piling snow in the Sierra Nevada, filling reservoirs, and thwarting anglers and fish.
Last week’s episode at the Oroville Dam on the Feather River was the culmination of months of rain and an infrastructure not equipped to handle the deluge. For a recap, the brim-full reservoir forced dam operators to crank the faucet to the max. The 100,000-cfs crush of water that was released went on to disintegrate both primary and backup spillways, forcing the evacuation of almost 200,000 people downstream.
While dam engineers are still trying to work out a long-term fix, the trout and steelhead below are choking on willows and silt. And of major concern are redds belonging to endangered steelhead and salmon. It’s likely that some redds were either scoured out or buried in the Feather and other flooded rivers across the state. However, as fisheries biologist John McMillan notes, this is pretty standard for NorCal fish.
"Salmon and steelhead have evolved behaviors that allow them to mitigate floods to some degree," he says. "Not all [river] channels are unstable and some redds, despite the really high flows, will go largely unscathed."
McMillan has found fry swept into fields and up in trees after floods. But their survival instincts predispose them to take evasive actions. "Fry and steelhead parr may hide in the substrate. Actually dive down into the spaces between boulders and large cobble… They may move into floodplain channels, including spring-fed channels that are less prone to flooding," he says. Their larger relatives, both smolts and adults, are beter equipped to survive floods and can usually move to the edges of the river or into side channels to ride it out.
For now Sacramento Valley anglers are also riding it out, exhausting Netflix and emptying dehumidifiers waiting for a dry forecast. Capt. Chuck Ragan says, "I aim to lean on the positive side with a couple fistfuls of hope that Mama Nature will find her way, as long as we do our duty to help out while we're alive and able."