Until two weeks ago, only two trout had been caught in Spirit Lake since the 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens.
So when Amy Bryant, a Forest Service fishery worker, hauled in a gillnet with trout No. 3 Aug. 6, she let out a whoop and planted a smack on the fish.
A shoreline examination determined that the rainbow trout was a female. Bryant named her “Helen” after the volcano that rises from the shore of the lake.
Helen was the only trout caught by a team of six biologists during a week. One rainbow was netted in 1993, and another the following year, and the biologists had hoped to see an increase in the lake’s fish population.
After two disappointing days of research, Washington Fish and Wildlife Department biologist Bob Lucas said, “I don’t think there are that many fish here, not for a lake this size.” The lake covers 3,098 acres, two-and-a-half times the surface area of the pre-eruption body.
Before Mount St. Helens erupted, Spirit Lake was a popular fishing spot. The state planted about 25,000 rainbow trout each year, and steelhead and coho swam up the Toutle River and spawned in the scenic lake.
That all ended in a few minutes in 1980. The volcano’s blast displaced the water in Spirit Lake, which flowed back in but was heated to temperatures lethal to fish. Decaying organic material that ended up in the lake robbed the water of oxygen.
Biologists theorize that trout were able to survive in a stream that flowed into the lake. They may have washed down from St. Helens Lake, which empties into Spirit Lake. A lake trout was found in St. Helens Lake in 1983, though rainbows hadn’t been caught there for many years before the eruption.
The outlet channel to Spirit Lake is now a 1.6-mile-long tunnel that is thought to be impassible to fish. The public isn’t allowed off trails near the lake, where fishing is prohibited.
The first post-eruption trout, netted in 1993, was named “Harry,” and “Harriet” followed in 1994. Harry was determined to be a wild fish, ruling out the chance that someone planted him. Harriet’s DNA had similarities to Cowlitz River system stocks - she could have descended from pre-eruption fish that made it up the Toutle.
Helen, of course, was dead after spending the night trapped in the net about 25 feet deep.
The biologists put Helen on a log and gathered around her for a post-mortem. She was 13 inches long and weighed a plump one pound. The fish was about two years old.
Tissue samples haven’t been analyzed to determine Helen’s origin.
Three fish in three years of testing is far from a full creek, though it’s at least proof that Spirit Lake was recovered to the point it can support fish.