Meandering angler: McCloud River salmon may return

The McCloud River and the Upper Sacramento River (above Shasta Dam) are two of my favorite California trout streams. They, along with the Pit River, run south and west from Mount Shasta alongside the railroad, through beautiful wooded canyons and empty into Shasta Lake. In most years they have plenty of clear, cold water in which trout thrive. I’ve enjoyed many days fishing during which I’ve seen only a few other anglers. They are far enough away from major cities and resorts that the fishing pressure is relatively low.

As good as the fishing is today, it was much better before Shasta Dam was completed in 1945, when there actually were a lot more anglers tying to catch them. The dam is huge and created the largest reservoir in the state, enhancing water storage, flood control and hydro-electricity, but killing the traditional salmon and steelhead runs that sustained Native Americans before the coming of the white man.

The runs continued into the 19th Century, when fur traders, gold seekers, loggers and railroad workers caught salmon and steelhead by the thousands. With the completion of the railroad over the Siskiyou pass in the 1880s, the area became popular with tourists who arrived via train at numerous resorts that were built along the tracks, which ran next to the Sacramento. There are many glowing reports about the quality of the fishing from those vacationers, who could literally stand in front of their lodging and catch huge salmon that were swimming upstream in great numbers. In spite of all that, the fish runs remained strong.

They’re all gone now. And all those 19th Century resorts are gone too. You can still see some remnants in isolated spots. But their demise was certain once the dam cut off the migration route the salmon and steelhead needed to make it up river to spawn. It blocked the downstream migration of their offspring as well. From that point on the salmon were gone. The only steelhead relatives remaining are rainbow trout, who do not need to migrate to the ocean and back to be able to spawn.

But last week, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) announced that the Department of Water Resources (DWR) will receive $1.5 million in funding for the Juvenile Salmonid Collection System Pilot Project in the McCloud Arm of Shasta reservoir. This project is the first test of a collection system that would be an integral part of reintroducing endangered winter-run Chinook salmon and other runs of salmon to their historical habitat.

The pilot project is designed to solve what may be the biggest challenge in reintroducing winter-run Chinook salmon to the cold McCloud River. Biologists and engineers need to collect juvenile salmon once they hatch in the river but before they swim into Shasta reservoir, where they are at risk of predators and other threats. The collection system just downstream from where the river enters the reservoir would funnel colder water – and the young fish -- to a collection point. The fish would then be transported around Shasta Dam and released into the Sacramento River to continue their migration to the ocean.

CDFW is leveraging funding from the Wildlife Conservation Board to reduce the impacts of drought on fish and wildlife. The grant awarded to DWR totals $1.5 million for this first year of testing the collection system.

“We have a window of time to recover California’s most endangered salmon, but that time is running out,” said Barry Thom, Regional Administrator of NOAA Fisheries West Coast Region. “Saving these native fish will take science, ingenuity and lots of collaboration by all of us who want to see winter-run Chinook swim in their original habitat once again.”

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