fishing for words

(and tossing out random thoughts)


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on the Rim Fire (and why it might be better find other places to fish, for now, and let nature heal, undisturbed)

It was long ago decided that this blog was to be guided by a few simple rules; that it would be family focused and friendly, devoid of rants or advice, and mostly my space to write about the misadventures of my life.

Today, however, things are bit somber.

CalFire Rim Fire Incident Report

CalFire Rim Fire Incident Report

California’s fire season is shaping up to be one of historic proportions. The Rim Fire still raging near Yosemite Valley is one of 11 major fires currently burning in our bone-dry state. Those are only “major” fires. During the last few weeks, about 150 fires were sparked by lightning strikes. CalFire figures show that through the middle of August, 4,715 separate fires have burned the state — beating by a wide margin the historical annual average since 2008 of 3,000 fires. The Rim Fire is now the largest fire in the recorded history of the Sierra Nevada and, as of today, the 5th largest wildfire in California’s history.

In this moment, all eyes are understandably on the immediate danger to lives and property. Prayers are being said for the firefighters. This is devastation on an unimaginable scale.

As a fly fisherman, I can’t help but ask questions about the long-term impact on the many streams and rivers now stripped of bankside vegetation, and the fish in their waters. The extent of ecological damage won’t be understood for a long time. The intensity of the blaze — flames reportedly reached 100 to 200 feet as they shot up canyons — left nothing behind. While the Groveland Ranger District of the Stanislaus National Forest, the area predominately affected by the Rim Fire, has gone through cycles of intense wildfires, those fires have burned only small areas. (Decades of fire suppression and logging can be blamed.) Conjecture is that the Rim Fire, however, may have denuded up to a 1,000 acres.

The northern edge of the Rim Fire crossed the Clavey River, one of the longest undammed rivers in the Sierra Nevada, a designated wild and scenic river, and home to native coastal rainbow trout. The fire burned along extended stretches of the South and Middle Fork of the Tuolumne River as well as Cherry Creek, all waters known for fishing, whether stocked or wild fish. Many other but lesser known streams, streams I’ve found wild populations of trout, also fall within the boundaries of the Rim Fire.

The Clavey River

The Clavey River

Relatively little is known about the effect of fire on fish populations. An admittedly hasty search of the Internet offers some insight. It’s clear that the effects of fire on fish populations can be complex, with dependency on the length of the event, size of the habitat, the home range of the fish, specialization of spawning habitats and the type of fish. Of course, most studies cite salmonid fishes (trout, salmon, chars, freshwater whitefishes and grayling) as the taxonomic group slowest to recover after a fire.

That said, the effect of fire on native salmonid populations can be highly variable, with extinctions observed in some isolated small headwater streams, but a quick rebound when a species’ home range extends to multiple tributaries within a single watershed.

In affected rivers, streams and lakes, fires can most notably affect water temperature and water chemistry as well as the local invertebrates, amphibians and fish. No longer shaded by trees and brush, water temperature can rise, reducing the solubility of dissolved oxygen. Absorption of ash can increase the water’s pH and impact nutrient levels in aquatic systems. Studies document five- to 60-fold increases in phosphate, nitrate, and ammonium concentrations in streams affected by fires that have swept through larger watersheds. Conditions in these waters returned to normal with a few weeks, but were later impacted by rain flushing additional ash and soil through the watershed.

It’s likely that the smallest streams will have most dramatically impacted by the fire. Though most people dance around the issue, this has been another drought year for California, and water levels are so low that any longish exposure to the fire may have “cooked” many of those small streams.

Nature, however, can be resilient; as long as we don’t get in the way. Anyone who’s visited Mt. St. Helens National Volcanic Monument can attest to that.

A beetle native to the Sierras, which has infrared receptors allowing it to detect fire, could be first on scene to feast on the blackened trees. They, in turn, will draw birds. New growth will sprout, creating forage for small mammals and, eventually, deer and bears.

It just takes time. Though it may not look the same.

For a while, though, many Tuolumne County fisheries will probably be best left alone.

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hiking through history

We snuck out of the Bay Area on the Thursday a week ago for long weekend, planning to cram a bit of everything into the time we had.

Railroad ties at the West Side Rail Grade trail head.

Railroad ties at the West Side Rail Grade trail head.

In a new spirit of exploring unknown parts of familiar territory, we ended up on the West Side Rail Grade the next morning. The trail — really a former narrow-gauge railbed — begins on Buchanan Road in Tuolumne City and is carved into the hillside above the North Fork Tuolumne River, on the north side of the canyon. It was christened in 1898 as the Hetch Hetchy & Yosemite Valley Railroad under the ownership of the West Side Lumber Co., which used narrow-gauge railroads in the Sierra Nevada Mountains until the 1960s. The HH&YV was primarily employed to haul fresh-cut logs from the sugar pine forests of eastern Tuolumne County to the West Side Lumber Mill in Tuolumne City.

The trailhead is just outside of town, and the first 100 yards are marked by decomposing railroad ties that look like worn steps. After that, most of the trail is exposed, which left us to bake in a remarkably hot morning sun. There are a couple places where benches and tables allow for a break in the shade, and a sprinkling of poison oak along the trail encourages one to stick to the well-worn path.

Though I’m not a history buff, per se, it’s a pleasant surprise to find remains of history in situ. About a mile down the trail we came across long portions of ties and rails, with the trail occasionally shifting from one side of the tracks to the other.

Rails of the Hetch Hetchy & Yosemite Valley Railroad.

Rails of the Hetch Hetchy & Yosemite Valley Railroad.

The grade slopes gently downward, at least for as far as we hiked, and it would be a great place to break in some new boots. Had we continued the full 4½-plus miles, we could have soaked our toes in the North Fork of the Tuolumne River, near Basin Creek. (I originally discovered part of the West Side Rail trail while exploring Forest Service land above Long Barn, and while fishing an upstream portion of the Tuolumne, but have since determined that was another section of the trail that stretches from Hull Creek to the Clavey River, that that’s another hike for another time.)

Hot and happy dog.

Hot and happy dog.

We met a few folks along the way: an overachiever who was jogging uphill and a few women who walk it almost every day, one of whom had made a dramatic move from the northern California coastal town of Bolinas to the much drier Sierra foothills.

With the full heat of the sun soon approaching, we left the exploration of a last blind curve for another time, and headed back. This day we had the dog with us and I don’t know if it was he or I who was panting more in the heat.

I have a feeling, though, that we’ll see more of this trail in the spring.

 

 


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on the (hidden) cost of visiting a “local” fly shop

Sure, deceit is rampant in fly fishing. A common non-answer answer to “What fly you using?” might be, “Well, they’re looking at dries, taking some nymphs too, but streamers might work.” And it’s always delivered with a grin.

That same grin might go along with a tale about the latest and great gear gotten at a great price, but often left unsaid is the “where” of that purchase. While I pondered the gift certificates on my desk and personally wrestled with this question of “where” the last few weeks, it dawned on me that me and my generation maybe the last one with truly equal footing in the pre- and post-Internet world.

My nearest fly shop is about 17 miles away, not too far. It’s a modest affair and on the surface, like many fly shops, seems to have had its struggles over the years. Inventory can still be hit or miss.

The Orvis gift certificates on my desk, however, made the choice between shopping online and visiting a brick-and-mortar shop both a logistical and a financial decision. The closest store, in San Francisco, closed last year. I could shop online, but wading boots were on my list, and just as much as I wouldn’t buy a fly rod without casting it first, I generally don’t buy anything that will be worn without test fitting. I also detest the drawn out process of buying, returning and awaiting shipment of a replacement item.

That’s why the wife and I ended up at the Roseville Orvis store, 80 miles away from home, a weekend ago.

We made a day of it, stopping to walk in Discovery Park along the American River, just above its confluence with the Sacramento River. The weather was great and the river was dotted with boats of anglers searching for the first salmon of the Central Valley season.

packWe found the Orvis store after realizing it had moved and, feeling a bit like a dork, I carried my waders and socks on the walk to the store. The waders gave me away as soon as I entered the store, and soon I was set with new rubber-soled wading boots. (My old felt boots are still serviceable, but will be relegated to a back role and waters known to be invasive species free.) A small chest pack was selected and a day pack ordered. More than a few flies made it into the bag.

I enjoyed the friendly banter with Frank – comparisons of fishing experiences, hints and suggestions of waters that deserve a visit – something that’ll never be matched online. And there was no cost to fondle wiggle test rods on my wish list.

Fuel to Get There: $18.45
Entrance Fee at Discovery Park: $5.00
Lunch at Smashburger: $10.52
Plenty of New Fly Fishing Gear: Don’t Ask
Personal Service from Guy Who Actually Uses the Gear: Priceless


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you may have to carry a fire extinguisher to hike high enough to find Sierra Nevada trout

ICCC Report CoverFollowing up its good news/bad news report on Lake Tahoe, the California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment paints a bleaker picture in its August 2013 Indicators of Climate Change in California.

To sum it up, analysis of monitoring data and scientific research from throughout the state outlines the effects of climate change: The spring runoff in the Sierra Nevada has declined over the last century. The period of time when winter temperatures in the Central Valley are cold enough for the development of fruit and nut tree flowers has been decreasing since 1950. River runoff declined during the 20th Century:

River Runoff Percent Decline
in 20th Century
Sacramento River System* 9%
San Joaquin River System 6%
Kings River 6%
Kern River 8%
Mokelumne River 7%
Trinity River 8%
Truckee River 13%
Carson and Walker rivers 5%
*includes the Sacramento River and major tributaries, the Feather, Yuba and American rivers.

Changes in average temperatures have led to die-offs of native vegetation at the lower range of various species’ elevation range (during the last six decades Sierra Nevada conifers have clearly retreated upslope) and is pushing about half of the small mammals in Yosemite National Park to higher elevations. The annual acreage burned by wildfires in the state increased since 1950, with the three largest fire years occurring during the last 10 years. The acidity in the coastal waters around Monterey Bay is increasing at a rate greater than that in the open ocean near Hawaii. The average annual temperature in mountain lakes, including Lake Tahoe, has risen over the last few decades.

And butterflies are emerging earlier during the spring in the Central Valley.

Yet, there’s no real trend that can be discerned from the data. The rise in the sea level rise along the California coast is bucked the global pattern and has be relatively constant during the last two decades.

Cheery stuff.


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maybe you’d better fish those Sierra lakes while you can

The good news is that the clarity of Lake Tahoe improved last year. The bad news is the whys. Precipitation in 2012 was only 71% of average and there was a lack of “deep mixing” during the winter.

While the lack of precipitation means pollutants flowing into the lake, the lake will lose shoreline with any prolonged drought.

And, maybe you'd  fish those rivers, streams and creeks a bit earlier in the year.

And, maybe you’d fish those rivers, streams and creeks a bit earlier in the year. Snow in the Tahoe Basin is melting nearly a month earlier than it did in 1960.

The lack of deep mixing – cool surface water sinking and forcing nutrients deeper in the lake to the surface, also know by fishermen as “turnover” – suppresses algae growth, which would otherwise cloud the water — but that also means warmer water temperatures. The annual average surface temperature of Lake Tahoe last year was nearly 53 degrees – the highest ever recorded.

Perhaps the scary part is a few lines in the intro to the report written by Geoffrey Schladow, Director of the UC Davis Tahoe Environmental Research Center:

“While Lake Tahoe is unique, the forces and processes that shape it are the same as those acting in all natural ecosystems. As such, Lake Tahoe is an analog for other systems both in the western U.S. and worldwide.”

You can read the relatively short report update here.


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“If there is one thing the history of evolution has taught us it’s that life will not be contained. Life breaks free, it expands to new territories and crashes through barriers, painfully, maybe even dangerously, but, uh… well, there it is.”
— Dr. Ian Malcolm, Jurassic Park