Hope for salmon
Things are looking up for local fishermen with a proposed new bridge at Antelope Creek and a promising fishing season ahead
This time of year the descent into the Tehama Wildlife Area is a cool ride down into a lush valley laced with purple and yellow wildflowers. James Chakarun takes his pickup truck into the nearly 47,000-acre wildlife preserve about twice a month. He’s a wildlife-habitat supervisor with the California Department of Fish and Game, and it’s not hard to see why he likes his job.
Somehow Chakarun manages to stay on the narrow dirt road while stealing long glances out across the valley at the snow-capped mountains in the distance. Eventually the road comes to a water crossing and he stops the truck and hops out.
Chakarun is overseeing a new project—expected to be completed by early September—to help increase chinook salmon and steelhead trout populations in the Sierra Nevada foothills. The idea is to remove a steel-grate stream-crossing on Antelope Creek, a Sacramento River tributary in the Tehama Wildlife Area, past the tiny unincorporated town of Paynes Creek, northeast of Red Bluff. The metal grate has been an impediment to fish migration, especially during drought years. When the water doesn’t rise above the grate, the fish have a hard time swimming over the metal. Sometimes the fish never make it upstream. This makes it harder from them to survive and eventually spawn.
“This year the flows are real good but you can’t always count on that,” said Chakarun, pointing to the water rushing over the steel meshing. “At low flows, the water flows through the grate and fish can’t go up or down. The juveniles can’t get out and the adults can’t get up during certain times of the year.”
Once the grate is removed, a 90-foot free-span bridge will replace the old structure. Chakarun said the project has been in the works for about five years, but heavy rains this winter have destabilized the crossing to the point where it’s unsafe for vehicles.
“The condition is just deteriorating further and further,” he said. “The crossing is constantly being eroded. There’s potential for it to eventually wash out.”
While the need for routine maintenance may have nudged the project forward, Chakarun said he hopes to see positive long-term ecological effects from these efforts. If everything goes as planned, spring-run chinook and steelhead will be able to safely swim under the new bridge, even during drought years. Chakarun said this will allow the fish to make their way farther upstream to spawn and could eventually result in bigger runs.
“Water temperatures are just too high below the crossing,” said Chakarun. “Spring-run chinook enter the system between March and June, but they don’t spawn until the fall. So they need to hold in deep-water pools upstream of the area where the water temperature is cool enough for their survival.” He added that if the fish get stuck downstream, it’s less likely that they’ll survive the summer and be able to spawn in the fall.
Only barbless catch-and-release fishing is allowed in the upper Antelope Creek watershed, and during construction of the new bridge, the section of the Tehama Wildlife Area south of Antelope Creek will be closed to the public. Nevertheless, the project is encouraging to those who use the wildlife area, though the impact statewide will be relatively small. Antelope Creek has never been a major watershed for spring-run chinook or steelhead. But, according to Dr. Michael P. Marchetti, professor of aquatic ecology at Chico State, the project definitely has the potential to affect local fish populations. Marchetti said we could start to see results in one to five years.
“There are so few places where spring-run chinook still exist in California,” Marchetti said. “Upper Antelope Creek is a wonderful watershed. It’s small, but it’s really fairly pristine. So anything we can do to increase the value of that for the fish would be useful.”
Dave Vogel, a senior scientist with Natural Resource Scientists Inc., an environmental consulting firm in Red Bluff, said habitat restoration projects like this one need to continue. However, he said saving salmon from being eaten by predators while they migrate east through the San Joaquin River delta would actually make the biggest impact on local populations.
“Predation on juvenile salmon seems to be the primary source of mortality for northern Sacramento Valley salmon,” said Vogel. “We know where many of the problems lie in the Delta. So it’s just a matter of having the state and federal water agencies focus their efforts in fixing those problem areas.”
The Central Valley steelhead and the spring-run chinook are both listed as a threatened species. But for the first time in four years, salmon fishing will be open this summer on the Sacramento River. And the changing situation at Antelope Creek offers even more hope for fishermen.
This is significant news for local businesses, too. Philip Peeples, co-owner of the Tackle Box, the longtime fishing- and hunting-supply store on Park Avenue, said 15 years ago the salmon run was his No. 1 season. Last year, though, it was his least profitable due to dwindling numbers of fish.
But now Peeples is very optimistic. When asked if people were gearing up for the summer run, he said, “Oh, definitely! Everybody that I know is tickled to death that we got a season back.”