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Fishermen and biologists smiling at results of dam removal as westslope cutthroat trout rebound

UPDATED: Tue., Nov. 16, 2021

By Fred Willenbrock For The Spokesman-Review

METALINE FALLS, Wash. – A native westslope cutthroat trout rose from a deep, cold pool in Sullivan Creek and struck an imitation grasshopper at the end of a fly line; a beautiful sight repeated many times this summer.

“Some wonderful pools in there – they did a great job,” said Tom Garrett, 72, who has fished Sullivan Creek since he was a boy.

Those fishing and those studying agreed, which isn’t always the case, that the $16 million project completed this fall in the main stem was good for native westslope cutthroat trout.

The project started in 2017 by removing the 134-foot-long, 55-foot-high concrete Mill Pond Dam and gradually releasing the 64-acre Mill Pond down Sullivan Creek to the Pend Oreille River.

A meandering 30-foot-wide Sullivan Creek, like it was around 1900, was created where the pond was.

As the debate over dam breaching to save native fisheries heats up around the region from the Snake River to the Skagit River, and millions of dollars are spent on all types of fish habitat improvement projects, many people question the value of dam removals.

On Sullivan Creek, the project was more about watershed health and less about fish. The presence of the native cutthroat is considered an indicator of watershed health, and with their historic numbers down 90% in the West, they were about to jump on the endangered species list.

This striking fish with silver-green sides, dark spots and namesake red slashes under their chins need pristine conditions – gravelly stream bottoms, cold water and shaded creeks with deep pools and pockets.

Westslope cutthroat are often outcompeted by nonnative fish, especially brown, brook and rainbow trout. They also grow more slowly, eat less aggressively and tend to be easier for anglers to catch.

“I believe Sullivan Creek fishery will only get better,” said Joe Maroney, director of Fisheries and Water Resources for the Kalispel Tribe. The fish biologist, with almost 30 years with the tribe, has worked on this project since it started.

“Great to see the fruits of time and money,” he said.

This summer’s milestone was the last log being placed, tree planted, excavation and other work done on the main stem of Sullivan Creek, said Lloyd Dixon, Seattle City Light’s project manager.

It is part of Seattle’s relicensing requirements for their Boundary Hydroelectric Project in conjunction with the Pend Oreille PUD surrender of their Sullivan Creek hydroelectric license.

Fly fisherman tales

“I was excited to see a fisherman – tried to talk to him but he was gone,” said Harry Rich, Seattle project fish biologist.

Rich said his team was gathering aquatic insect samples for a study that will be completed in winter but he said they look good from a fish food view.

Next year, they will start extensive fish studies that will continue for many years.

Rich might have seen Tom Garrett casting downstream.

Garrett has fished the stream most of his life. He grew up in northern Pend Oreille County and returned to become the first human resource manager at the now-closed Ponderay Newsprint mill in Usk. He is retired now, and has spent many days the past two summers exploring the deep, clear pools and banks of his childhood fishing grounds.

He said some portions of the winding stream above and below the former Mill Pond looked different than he remembers. That could be because Seattle City Light placed trees and wood debris in the creek. They even tipped trees near banks.

Like the biologists, Garrett said he is finding brown trout above the Mill Pond reach, rainbow trout below the old dam and cutthroat in the stream created by project crews in the former pond bottom.

He said he hooked two large cutthroats in the 15-inch range this summer above and below Mill Pond reach.

Garrett learned to fish on 5 miles of Sullivan Creek from where it empties into the Pend Oreille River in Metaline Falls to Sullivan Lake Dam. There is about 6,500 feet of new stream where the pond was.

These were places his dad and grandfather taught him the sport he loves.

Seattle project managers have tried to piece together what the stream looked like before the pond was there, without benefit of pictures or maps, or detailed information as to the types of fish who lived there. Dixon said they tried their best to return it to the 1800s, a period of time before pioneers used it to extract natural resources and power a town and cement plant.

Mill Pond was originally formed when a log crib dam was constructed in 1910 by the Inland Portland Cement Company. A concrete dam was built near it in 1921.

A 4-mile-long wooden flume diverted water to a hydroelectric plant downstream.

Garrett’s grandfather showed him the best spots. At that time, the people used every type of lure or bait and kept most of the fish to eat along with other sources of protein abundant in the area, like deer and elk.

“Grandpa Garrett (his father’s father) lived in Chelan and came over to fly fish,” said Garrett. His father, Dave, who moved the family there because of his work in the mine was already an avid fly fisherman.

“Grandpa Garrett took me up to fish when I was 7 years old,” Garrett said. “He sent me out to catch grasshoppers one day.”

“He had me throw them down in the creek that was loaded with brookies and bam – a fish ate them,” Garrett said. “He rigged up his fly rod with a big artificial hopper and cast it in – bam and bam.”

“I loved that,” Garrett said. “I was hooked.”

“This summer, I brought my grandkids to the Mill Pond reach and we fished and had a great time,” Garrett said. “I did the grasshopper thing for my grandkids, like my dad did for his grandkids.”

Since Seattle City Light first completed the channel and began placing wood debris, Garrett has fished most of the stream regularly from about July to October.

Biologist and fishermen divide Sullivan Creek into three pieces: the junction with the Pend Oreille River in Metaline Falls to the site of the dam that was breached at Mill Pond; the area from the dam site to near where the pond ended, which they call Mill Pond reach; and the point to where Outlet Creek empties into it from the Sullivan Lake Dam. There are also miles of tributaries above this feeding into the headwaters of Sullivan Creek.

Garrett has fished it all many times.

His favorite in the past has been from a few miles downstream from the dam walking the stream and banks up to a giant pool below the former dam site. He fishes several large pools on the way up.

“I used a big hopper in the pool below the dam,” Garrett said. “Wham, a 15-inch cutthroat hit it.”

Below that spot the stream runs through a deep rock walled canyon. He fished the canyon when younger but doesn’t venture into that today.

“Mom said no fishing in the canyon but I did,” Garrett said. “There are still big pools and it’s unpredictable year to year.”

Seattle didn’t do any work in the canyon so it’s pretty much the way it was.

Below the canyon the stream runs past the original red brick power house. It was purchased from the PUD by a Tacoma couple several years ago. But permitting issues and a busy work schedule delayed their plans to refurbish it they said this fall.

“We just got back some architectural drawings for the powerhouse,” Ellen Harris wrote in an email. “We are hopeful that we will be able to have more meaningful progress within the next year.”

Garrett said there are some good fishing pools near the power house. Below that the creek meanders near Metaline Falls until it empties into the Pend Oreille River.

Garrett has landed some big trout where the two meet. He said a few were bull trout.

When the Mill Pond was there, Garrett said he mostly fished above it to Outlet and Harvey Creeks.

“I got browns, rainbows and brooks – maybe an occasional cut,” Garrett said. “Brooks were coming in from tributary streams out of beaver ponds. The area was loaded with brookies but not anymore.” This is an area City Light has concentrated their eastern brook trout suppression work. The brook trout were planted decades ago for fisherman.

There are places where the water was too easy to get to for campers and it was overfished, Garrett said.

Another competitor for fishing spots below the old dam is gold miners who set up portable dredges that disturb the fish.

“If I see evidence of goldminers, I keep going, everything is stirred up,” he said. A new competitor for fishing spots that Garrett doesn’t mind are swimmers during the hot summers.

When fishing the upper creek, he landed another big cut, he said.

“It looked like a good pool, but one of those difficult with tree branches. I lost 3 flies in the process – some little caddis,” Garrett said. “Then wham, I caught another 15 -inch cutthroat.”

“So, I tossed it back,” he said. “Even though I was out for meat that day because my sister had said get breakfast.”

“He was really brightly colored. I put back because we do need to develop the fishery,” Garrett said. “My friends from the area don’t understand – they were raised like I was to keep fish to eat.”

“Much of Sullivan was too accessible with too many hardware (lures) fisherman, he said. “I knew a family that would fish 3 or 4 miles up Sullivan Creek above Outlet Creek,” Garrett said. “People would fish those holes and fish them out,” he said. “Come out with 20 or 30 fish and come to school and brag about it.”

Along with overfishing, biologist speculated that lack of food was caused by blast logging which deepened channels so there was less back flow into side channels where fish food develops.

This fall, an area called Moon Flats was the last spot on the main stem that Seattle placed wood debris to create new back channels during flooding next spring.

When asked if he was excited about the fact biologists discovered pure-strain westslope cutthroat trout in Mill Pond reach, Garrett said he wasn’t sure but knew the fishery biologists were.

This discovery after the project began means the cutthroat’s ancestors went back before the pioneer days unlike most in the drainage with some genetic link to hatchery fish.

“Fishery biologists are super excited about this,” Dixon said. “We took genetic samples from hundreds of fish and sent to WDFW labs.”

It turned out the pure-strain Sullivan Creek cutthroats are very unique genetically.

“It’s important because it means they are super-resilient to things like climate change,” Dixon said. “Fish that have been around for 1,000 years developed ways to survive changes.”

Fisherman love it

“It’s a wonderful place,” Garrett said. “I took may grandkids there this summer and did the whole grasshopper thing with them.”

“It’s neat to fish it,” Garrett said. “Kids had a good time even though we had to throw back cutts.”

“I guess I will,” he said when asked if he will tell them they are genetically pure with connections to fish living here centuries ago.

Garrett may be disappointed with the brook trout suppression program because he loved to fish for the abundant trout, but biologists said it’s necessary for the survival of the native fish. They point out that the federal government considered listing native cutthroat trout under the Endangered Species Act, which they say could have caused tremendous new restrictions on all activities in the area.

Species like brook trout were introduced decades ago to enhance angling opportunities before biologists discovered how damaging this could be to native cutthroats. Brook trout tend to take over.

“Nothing has changed in number of fish or size of fish below Sullivan since the cold-water pipe,” Garrett said. “Just no brooks.”

Biologists view creekTroy Jaecks, 45, has been a resident Seattle City Light fisheries biologist for the past four years.

He agrees with Garrett that it probably won’t be a blue ribbon trout stream like in Montana or Idaho.

“As good as the water looks, as clean as it looks – it doesn’t have the quantity or many large fish,” Jaecks said. At a Montana river with similar size and flow, he has caught many more fish and larger ones.

“It’s challenging,” he said, adding it’s a beautiful stream with cold deep pools and relatively easy access .

He feels the miles of new stream in the Mill Pond reach is the prize of the project. A large enough population of genetically pure westslope cutthroat trout are there to thrive and expand. Westslope cutthroats from the hatchery being built by Seattle City Light near Usk will not be introduced here so they stay pure. Something rare today in the West, he said.

Jaecks gets out whenever he can when not working to fly fish Sullivan, he said. As a biologist it is meeting their expectations. But like all fisherman he had maybe expected more and larger fish.

“Cutthroat are indiscriminate – don’t really need to match hatch,” he said. He usual presents large flies like grasshopper imitations.

When they shock sampled downstream they were surprised how small the fish were. Mostly 5 to 6 inches with the largest 10 inches.

Without natural barriers at either end of the Mill Pond reach, they will have to continue suppression of brook trout.

When asked what the largest fish he has caught in Sullivan Creek, he became the fisherman- guarding -his-secret-spot and replied I wasn’t working and let’s just say 14 inches.

Main stem done

Project manager Dixon said crews will work on tributaries next year.

Dixon, 53, an engineer and biologist, is also a fly fisherman and has been on the project since 2012. He said he plans to finish his career on it.

The Kalispel Tribe Natural Resource Department has been contracted to suppress nonnative fish above the Mill Pond reach and assisted in the aquatic insect gathering this summer. They also do much of the fish survey work.

This winter biologists will review the insect study and other fish surveys. Thousands of cutthroats were captured and released with electronic implants that allow monitors in the stream to record their movements.

As the dam removal and stream restoration work continues next year their budget will reach $20 million and over the next 20 years Seattle City Light estimates they could spend up to $60 million on mitigation projects in the watershed.

The dam fell into disrepair and the public utility district took over in 1959. They considered rebuilding it for many years for power generation, but the small size and increasing relicensing costs made the project unfeasible.

In 2005, the PUD notified the federal government of its intention to surrender the license to operate the project as a power facility.

Seattle City Light offered to pay for the project costs if they could be used for mitigation requirements for their Boundary Hydroelectric Project relicensing. The high cost of the project has always been an issue. But this unique arrangement will save Pend Oreille County and Seattle ratepayers, according to both utilities.

“Next year first significant monitoring of fish,” Dixon said.

“We have not shocked through the mill pond reach,” Dixon said. “But seeing more people out here points to more fish.”

Dixon said he also takes time after work to fly fish but says he isn’t very good.

“I fished the big pool under the bridge and pools downstream,” he said. “Caught little cuts.”

“Not huge fish yet,” he said. “I think numbers are going to come back.”

He said overtime the forest will mature and natural wood will fall into stream creating even better fish habitat.

The open area that was the pond is fantastic for easy fly fishing casts now but it’s going to get way harder as the forest reclaims it, Dixon said. The open meadows that look like Montana streams will be gone in five years.

Dixon has fished the deep canyon above the powerhouse in the summer. He waded and swam through the deep pools.

“Beautiful place,” he said.

Seattle City Light began construction of a fish hatchery near Usk on WDFW land. It will be finished in 2024.

They will take fish from creeks in the drainage, breed them and after three years reintroduce them to the same stream.

“Not like hatcheries as people know hatcheries,” Dixon said. “Not a production hatchery where we make as many fish as possible.”

They won’t take any native cutthroats from Mill Pond reach so they maintain their genetic purity.

“It’s the wave of the future all over. People want to remove old dams for safety and bring habitat back.”

Suppression will continue

“Interesting work up there,” said Bill Baker, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife regional biologist.

He reminded fishermen that Sullivan Creek and tributaries are subject to selected gear rules: single-point barbless hooks and no bait, only flies and spinners.

Westslope cutthroat trout and bull trout must be released. The daily limit for other trout is two over 8 inches.

As part of the suppression effort, there is no minimum or limit on Eastern Brook trout.

Other projects help

The PUD is also a major participant in the watershed rehabilitation.

PUD Natural Resource Director Scott Jungbloom said a $4.2 million project that includes a 48-inch pipe drawing cold water from the depths of Sullivan Lake to Outlet Creek is working well.

The system controls temperatures in Sullivan Creek but also regulates flow from Sullivan Lake.

They have monitors at the release in Outlet Creek and where it mixes with Sullivan Creek to monitor temperature and flow, he said. They know what is the ideal for both and keep it there.

The purpose of the pipe is to prevent adding warm water like before from the top layer of the lake.

Fish come up in warm summer looking for cold water but it works both ways, he said. They could put too much cold water into the creek from the depths of the lake.

After five years and more than $37 million, the fish passage at the PUD’s Box Canyon Dam was completed and a ribbon cutting was held Oct. 21. The fish ladder was required as part of the PUD’s 50-year federal relicensing of the hydroelectric project.

Congress just allocated $85 million for construction of another fish passage down river at Albeni Falls Dam.

Kalispel tribe biologist

Joe Moroney, a fish biologist, has almost 30 years in the Kalispel Natural Resource Department.

The tribe has a big part in this project and the entire Pend Oreille watershed improvement project from Pend Oreille County to North Idaho.

His crews

use traps to sample aquatic insects for study . He said, from bug samples, it looks like a healthy stream. There are caddis flies, stone flies and may flies.

“Cold water pipe from Sullivan Lake is working well,” Moroney said.

Moroney said he feels the cold-water consistency from the pipe will help during future warmer summers.

“I saw dead fish in other streams this summer,” Maroney said. “Sullivan stayed cold.”

They can’t completely suppress nonnative fish everywhere, Maroney said. There has to be barriers so nonnative fish don’t move back after suppression. They aren’t eradicating with chemicals like is done sometimes in other systems.

In Mill Pond reach, it’s not possible to suppress every brook trout so they will continue each year to aggressively shock and net, he said. Anglers will be encouraged to take them when caught.

“We are seeing strong (cutthroat) numbers because of suppression work,” he said.

Fish studies in Outlet Creek show there are cutthroats 14 to 16 inches long, he said – not yet like Idaho or Montana streams where they regularly record them 20 to 24 inches long.

“The best is still yet to come,” Maroney said.

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