THE CURRENCY OF RAINFALL

by Ron Hirschi, Spring 2019

Photos & video by John F. Williams except where noted

THE CURRENCY OF RAINFALL

By Ron Hirschi, Summer 2019

Photos &  video by John F. Williams except where noted

KITSAP COUNTY SUPPORTS A FAIR NUMBER OF YEAR-ROUND STREAMS

Unlike most other western Washington streams, those on the Kitsap Peninsula are funded for the most part by a single currency, rain. Others have snow to keep banks full and salmon happy campers.

I lived a while in Montana where snow packs are main ingredients for healthy waters. Well, unless you are a fly fisherman like me and think stream health has to do with fishable water. When snow really starts to drip into rivers like the Madison in Montana, water levels rise abruptly and the river pretty much looks like the muddy Mississippi. Visibility disappears for hungry trout that might take a sunken nymph but will never see to a floating dry fly.

The melting time arrives shortly after a long, cold winter when there are times the river is clear, but the temperatures hover around zero, making fishing pretty much impossible. Even just below 32 degrees Fahrenheit, fly line freezes in guides, making it impossible to cast. Then too, small icebergs float down river, making fishing a dangerous sport. ​

Here in the rainy Northwest, a similar cycle occurs, but it is the heavy rains of fall and winter that pulse streams up and discolor the water. Reddish brown tannins, the result of rotting vegetation, add their color to streams. Lush forest floors, the kinds thick with moss and old tree bark, can darken a stream more than others when rain falls and washes over the riparian zone — the uplands adjacent to and influencing the stream.

Pretty much no one pays attention to this phenomenon, mainly because few if any fishermen can be found trudging along the banks of small streams. By the time they grow large enough to be of interest to fishers, fish like sea run cutthroat trout don’t spend much time in small streams. Instead, when they are mature, they jet into a small creek, spawn, then return to saltwater.

Campbell River, photo by Dan Clements
Campbell River, photo by Dan Clements

Cutthroat are beautiful, watchable fish, if you know how to find them. Like coho salmon, they will move as far upstream as possible, even ascending seemingly impossible falls and moving into tiny trickles. They are hard wired to spawn where much larger Chinook salmon can’t, so make use of waters so shallow, their backs might be out of water. It’s all about competition for a shared resource. Evolution has helped the smaller salmon find a niche, as you might discover if you start looking way upstream during spawning season, from October to late December.  

One of my favorite places to watch them is at the downstream end of a culvert in Poulsbo and in smaller, deep pockets of water in Centennial Park. 

A very short video of some chum salmon swimming upstream to spawn in Cowling Creek.
South Fork of Dogfish Creek in Centennial Park in Poulsbo, WA

Once you find some in these places, you can surprise yourself by heading upstream. Cross Highway 305 and drop down into the stream where you will find cutthroat quite a ways up and into the hillside that drops down from North Kitsap High School.

​In heavy rain years adult coho salmon find their way up here too, crossing under the highway to spawn in next to nothing water. But this all depends on ample rainfall.

The late Autumn rains can lift stream levels high enough to allow big bodied salmon access to upper reaches of all our tiny creeks. Meanwhile, you can often see ample chum salmon, and you might be lucky to see the far less common Chinooks downstream.

Photo by Dan Clements
Photo by Dan Clements

I’ve been fascinated with fish all my life and spent a great deal of time following the small streams near my home, hoping to see trout or salmon. My first encounter was in a place no longer there, for it was logged, destroying an old growth woods sheltering a tiny creek. Moss lined the stream bank and moss covered a log fallen long ago across the two-foot-wide trickle. The log was just right for a twelve year old to stretch down and across it. When I quietly put belly on log and peered beneath its shelter, I could see two cutthroat, maybe 12, maybe 14 inches long. This was no more than 50 yards from salt water and in a section of the creek inches deep, so that their backs were in air. I could have easily grabbed them but only admired the moment.

Ron Hirschi is a fish habitat biologist who turned his passion for the future world into working with kids. His more than 50 nature books for young readers have opened many doors to create projects with caring teachers and parents. Locally, he helped create the Suquamish Basket Marsh and was instrumental in the creation of the Nick’s Lagoon park and salmon sanctuary. His work in Ohio has spanned many years and includes restoration of wetlands and creation of a life size humpback whale that dives into the earth where it has inspired hundreds of kids to think ocean. His writing continues with a new book all about the many endangered species in Hawaii. He most favors his time spent at his alma mater, Wolfle Elementary where, each year, he and others take kids out into Hood Canal to see who lives there and who we might protect.