Savor Bristol Bay: A reading from July 2010
August 14th, 1999 on the South Platte River in Colorado. It all started when I ran into an old high school buddy at the local Orvis store. Since high school Ted Moody had become a very skilled fly fisherman in fact, he lived for fishing. Plaid shirt, croakies dangling his sunglasses from the rearview mirror of his truck, and his springer spaniel on the passenger seat, that was his lifestyle. I remember telling him that I had been fishing the San Juan River while I was in college and that while I really enjoy the sport, I couldn’t imagine it as a lifestyle. At that point, Ted invited me to go fishing with him. It was early in the morning, and we could see the fog lifting from the South Platte River and hovering over the pine trees as we approached. Ted and I swapped stories of old high school friends as we geared up. It wasn’t long after we found our spot at the river’s edge that I realized I really knew nothing about the sport of fly fishing. It was that day I came to understand what the fly fishing lifestyle is all about. As I watched, Ted made his first cast of the day into a riffle, a hook set, and a beautiful 14 inch wild rainbow trout was the result. As the day was nearing its end I finally feel the zing – when you hook a fish, it runs as it unwinds your line off the reel. This is the zing that brings every fly fisherman back to the river…again and again and again. I not only landed a 12 inch Brown Trout that day, I also hooked myself on the fly fishing lifestyle.
Fast forward 3 years to June 8, 2002. The Hayman Fire begins in Colorado burning 215 square miles of forest. The gold medal water of the South Platte River was changed forever. The trout in this river, the same trout that showed me what fly fishing is all about, have been negatively impacted due to heat of the fire and scorched earth. The poor water quality continues to this day as ash leaches out of Cheesman Reservoir and post fire erosion continues.
March 18th 2006, Salmonberry River, Oregon. This was the day I came to understand anadromous fish. Steelhead and Salmon are anadromous, meaning they migrate from the salt water up river to spawn. I was visiting Oregon with my fiancé as we were in search for a new home where she could pursue a doctorate and I could begin a career change. My collage buddy Loren Gard lives in Oregon and is a true steelhead bum. He spends days on the river from first light until dusk, swinging a fly though the water, taking a break just long enough to eat a handful of homemade granola and a couple whole roma tomatoes. On March 18th the Oregon rain was reliably falling from the sky as I got my butt kicked and loved every minute of it! Loren and I walk up the river side railroad tracks of the Salmonberry as he told stories of how he broke is spay rod on ‘that tree right there’. We travel less then a ¼ mile up stream and then we bushwhack our way down to the river. I began fishing and within five minutes I felt a tug, I set the hook and before I had time to make my next move the water erupted with a silver flash and a crashing splash of water. At first I did not know what happened…my heart raced, my hands shook, and my feet quivered so much I nearly fell in the river. I then realized… I had hooked a steelhead. The silver flash and splash of water was the steelhead telling me it did not want to be caught that day. The instincts of this steelhead to continue upstream in order to spawn were too strong, and she managed to set herself free. This happened three more times during the day. I did however, land one fish, a sea-run cutthroat, yet another species that makes its home in the Salmonberry.
Fast forward about 1 year later. December 2007 the Oregon rains hammer the coastal mountain range. The rain causes erosion and landslides along the riverside railroad tracks. Parts of the riverbank and railroad collapse into the river. Before the floods in 2007 there were recorded steelhead redd densities of up to 79 redds per mile. After the floods in the spring 2009 only 2 redds in entire survey site were found. I was lucky enough to hook four steelhead that day, only to witness each one of them fiercely pursue their destiny upstream. The river is decimated and the river floor is now a moving bed of silt which may never again support a sustainable wild steelhead run.
To put the size of Bristol Bay into perspective currently 40 to 60 Million Sockeye Salmon return annually to give the ultimate sacrifice for the future existence of their species. This is currently the largest Sockeye run in the entire world. The Frasier River in BC was once host to over 100 Million Sockeye Salmon. Those numbers have dropped to 22 Million and further decreased last year to just 1 Million fish (or 1% of historic numbers). Here in our back yard, the Columbia River once produced 16 Million Salmon. Roughly 25% of Bristol Bay's current sockeye run. In 2008 367,000 Columbia River Chinook returned. This is only 2% of historic numbers, with roughly 80% of those returning Columbia River ‘Wild’ Chinook being of Hatchery origin. Among other factors dams, fishing, canning, mining, logging, global warming, and farming have all contributed to the drastic decrease in salmon returning to the rivers of the Pacific Northwest each year. Bristol Bay is different. These fish are different then the so called ‘wild’ salmon in the rest of the Pacific Northwest. They are truly wild, not of hatchery origin, born in the pristine head waters of Bristol Bay, faithfully returning in reliable numbers to assure the survival of their species for future generations.
I am a chef, fly fisherman and salmon conservationist. Fishing is my hobby and passion outside of the kitchen. I began fly fishing in Colorado, Wyoming, Idaho, and Montana for trout. I now fish Oregon, Washington and Alaska for steelhead and salmon. I have seen first hand amazing rivers like the Salmonberry in Oregon and the South Platte in Colorado decimated by the unintended consequences of decisions made by man. As a society we are only a generation away from not knowing. One generation away from not knowing what it is like to see 16 Million Salmon in the Columbia River or 60 Million Sockeye Salmon faithfully returning to Bristol Bay. We are only a generation way from not having the opportunity to fight for the salmon that define this region of the world. Bristol Bay is the model for a sustainable wild salmon fishery; it is the only of its kind left in North America. We must come together on this issue, stand up, and fight to preserve the future of Bristol Bay Salmon.