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"What most tourists term a plague of insects, the fly fisher calls a great hatch.”
                            Patrick F. McManus

Battle Creek... Where the salmon come from

My first attempt at steelhead fishing was with my father on Battle Creek 34 years ago. We took the Jelly's Ferry exit off I-5 past Red Bluff and drove about 14 miles to the old federal Coleman Fish Hatchery. After walking downstream about a quarter of a mile, we tied on Silver Hiltons, the hot fly that year, and waded into the creek past our waists and began casting. After quarter-casting for half an hour with no results, I was hit in my tush by something powerful. Two other fly fishers swear I came out of the water three feet straight up. As my father and the two convulsed in laughter, I looked around to see what had "attacked" me. It was a 20-25 lb. Chinook heading upstream to spawn. After my heart stopped pounding, I looked around to see between 12-15 other Chinook moving up stream. After getting bumped four or five more times, I learned to ignore the irritation.

We had fished for over four hours with no results and it was about one half hour before sunset. As I walked downstream, I came across two makeshift planks into the creek surrounded on both sides by wild blackberry plants. Anyone catching a fish could not possibly land it in that location, but I didn't think about that. On my first cast, I thought I was snagged and gave a frustrated yank on my rod. The steelhead came out of the water and made its first run upstream. After it took all of my fly line and half my backing, I started thinking about how much backing I had on the reel. Somehow, I turned the fish and as it shot downstream I thought, "Now I have it." Again, it took out my fly line plus all my backing. As it snapped my 5x tippet, (another mistake) it didn't even slow down. I have great memories of Battle Creek.

About six years ago, I wrote a conservation article about restoring 42 miles of prime Battle Creek spawning area and the plans to restore its fisheries. The plan included increasing water flow, elimination of mixing both the north and south forks of Battle Creek, and the removal of five hydroelectric diversion dams along with other important restoration projects. In 1999, Pacific Gas and Electric (PGE), the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), and the California Department of Fish and Game (DFG) came to an agreement and signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU), and arranged for funding the project .  However, before the project started, a local rancher who owned property on Battle Creek filed suit to prevent the restoration from going forward.  He had placed nets or screens both up and down stream on the creek, had planted trophy trout in the enclosure and was operating a pay-for-play operation. His suit brought the project to a halt and threatened stop it completely. That was the situation when my last article finished. However, when the case was presented to a judge, he found the plaintiff's case without merit and dismissed the suit. His judgment years of legal haggling and allowed the project to move forward. A year and a half ago, at a NCCFFF board meeting at Lake McCumber, a member of the Greater Battle Creek Watershed Working Group and a representative PG&E made a presentation showing the progress made on the Battle Creek restoration by the coalition of groups involved.

The Importance of Battle Creek and the Battle Creek Salmon and Steelhead Restoration Project (BCSSRP)

One of the main reasons Battle Creek is an excellent site for a restoration project is its geomorphic location. It was formed by volcanic rock erupting from the Cascades a few million years ago, and the creek is formed by a large number of deep springs that provide an excellent source of cold water year round. Despite its relativity low elevation, the springs provide the cold water needed for anadromous fish to complete their life cycle. Battle Creek has three tributaries; they are Baldwin Creek and its North and South Forks. Its drainage is about 370 square miles and it flows into the Sacramento River. The Battle Creek watershed has about 250 miles of fish-bearing streams and 87 miles of river suitable for both salmon and steelhead.

The major importance of Battle creek is its four historic and still-existing runs of:
1) -Spring run Chinook (Endangered)
2) Valley Spring-run Chinook (Threatened)
3) Valley Fall and late Fall Chinook (Species of Concern)
4) Valley Steelhead (Threatened)

The BCSSRP is again moving ahead and will allow for the restoration habitat of the four fish populations listed. On completion, it will add 42 miles of prime spawning habitat for anadromous fish and an additional six miles of tributary spawning access. It is hoped this will enhance the growth and populations of both the salmon and steelhead listed.

The project is made up of two parts with the first having been completed. The BCSSRP has a variety of goals. Some of these are:
1) The removal of five PG&E dams
2) To stop the intermingling of flows between the north and south forks
3) Placing fish ladders and screens on several diversion dams
4) Increasing water flows

The first dam was built in the early 1900's and was followed by four others, which eliminated 42 miles of prime-spawning habitat. Wildcat Dam has been removed and will be followed by the others in Part Two of the restoration. The other dams to be removed are the Lower Ridge Creek, Soap Creek Feeder, Coleman, and South Dam. Signs of improvement are already beginning to show. Ten years prior to the removal of Wildcat Dam, an average 10% of the salmon redds were found upstream from the dam. After Wildcat Dam's removal, 33% of the redds are now found above the former dams site.

The federal Coleman Fish Hatchery is located on Battle Creek and was built in 1942.This was attempt to maintain salmon and steelhead for both commercial and sport fishing because of the loss of natural habitat due to the building of Shasta and Keswick Dams. In researching this report, I talked with one of Coleman Hatchery's spokesman, Scott Hamelberg, who told me the hatchery produces over 12 million Chinook and 600,000 steelhead smolts annually. To date, they have had over 1 million Chinook return to spawn, but will not have a final steelhead count until after the run ends in March.

One "bone of contention" in re-establishing the 42 miles of spawning ground is the source of the fish to be used. The Coleman Hatchery people want use only hatchery fish. In speaking with Sharon Paquin-Gilmore, Watershed Coordinator for the Battle Creek Watershed Conservancy, they and others in the coalition, want to use native fish to establish and biodiversity. This issue has yet to be resolved.
Both phases of Part 1 of the project have been finished and Part 2 has started. Hopefully, the second half will be completed in the next several years. Given Battle Creek's abundant source of year round cold water, the re-opening of 42 miles of prime spawning ground, and the pre-existing salmonid fishery, all point to a successful project. Fortunately, Battle Creek faces none of the huge problems facing the San Joaquin River Restoration Project.

When the project is completed and the new section opens for fishing, I'll volunteer to be the Fishmiester for Delta Fly Fishers first steelhead outing on Battle Creek.

Hey, everyone should experience the "thrill" of unexpectedly hit in the butt by a 20-25 lbs salmon!

Ron Forbes
Conservation Chair

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