by Tony Nelson
When describing the who, what, when and why of the Stuart Creek steelhead barrier removal project that we completed in October 2014, I’m often asked, “Have the steelhead come back yet?”
No suspense – we haven’t seen any yet. But then again, steelhead haven’t been able to spawn in the creek for decades, so we knew that it might take time for them to re-learn that this excellent habitat is waiting for them. Stuart Creek does have what are thought to be resident rainbow trout. Rainbow trout are the same species as steelhead, the difference being that steelhead leave their freshwater stream and head to the ocean for a while, but the rainbow stays inland. The vast nutrients and space in the ocean mean a lot of food, so steelhead grow much larger than their resident siblings. I’ve asked around but, no, I can’t say what triggers some of the species to make the strenuous trip to the ocean and back or why the rest don’t hear the starting pistol. I have been told that research is revealing that the biology and dynamics of these fish are more complex than we originally thought. That’s not a surprise. We humans tend to underestimate the complexity of the natural world and overestimate our understanding of it.
Since the barrier removal project was completed, I’ve been doing “creek surveys” every winter when the steelhead would normally return. I pretty much spend a morning in waders walking up the creek and counting any fish I see (do not get the impression that this fun exercise is indicative of the rest of my job). Of course, I can’t see very well through the moving water and there are plenty of places for little fish to hide — and they’re way faster than me — so I see some fish but not many, and none that are steelhead size. The most I’ve ever counted in one survey was 95 in June of 2017. This equates to just over one fish per every 100 feet of creek. That doesn’t sound like much (it isn’t), but it felt pretty good at the time.
And now the pros have stepped in. Matt Erickson, Ryan Watanabe and Doug Lankenau of the California Department of Fish and Wildlife brought their gear and much better waders to Stuart Creek a couple of weeks ago to do a fish survey. A real fish survey. I was very happy to have them take a closer look, though, unfortunately, I couldn’t join them. And not because it would have been more work than just walking about and staring at the water. A big thanks to them for doing the survey and sharing their results and a few pictures with me.
How is their survey different? Whereas I walk the entire stretch of stream where the fish could conceivably be, they only had time to do two shorter stretches of about 300−400 feet each. They counted, measured and visually checked the health of 119 trout along with a few sculpins (note that no fish were harmed during the process and all were released at the location of capture). For the trout alone, that equates to 17 and 21 fish per 100 feet in the two stretches. Though it’s only one brief snapshot, those are good numbers and indicative of a healthy and productive stream. Ryan tells me that surveys in Sonoma Creek tributaries — Stuart Creek being one — from the 1960s and '70s measured 10–20 trout per 100 feet. That puts Stuart Creek today on the upper end of those past numbers. It isn’t the early 1800s numbers, as far as we know, but it’s exciting that the fish are telling us the creek is a good home.
No matter how inept their survey makes mine feel, I’m still going to do them. Because when the big one arrives, I know I won’t miss it and it’s the only one I need to see.
Learn more about the creek restoration at Stuart Creek:
Tony Nelson is Sonoma Land Trust's Sonoma Valley program manager.
Sonoma Land Trust is a local nonprofit based in Santa Rosa, CA, that conserves scenic, natural, agricultural and open lands in Sonoma County for the benefit of the community and future generations. This blog focuses on SLT's stewardship team, whose members do hands-on work to directly protect, restore, and safeguard the land for generations to come.