How To See Salmon

Rocky Brook Reflections: Blog 9

This photo of a spawning pink (a.k.a. humpback or humpie) pair illustrates how easy it is to observe adults in Rocky Brook. The water is almost always crystal clear during the fall, and there are times when the lighting can be near perfect, as is the case here.

I live right by a major waterfall, one of the area’s most visited attractions. The falls is fed by Rocky Brook, a year-round “creek” which is, in reality, a small, year-round river. To see the falls, people park right by the bridge over Rocky Brook, and walk upstream to the falls viewing area, about 1000 ft. Since I live right there (the parking area is partially on my property) I often interact with these visitors, some local, most from further afield. People invariably ask if there are any fish in Rocky Brook. In the Pacific Northwest, “fish” more often then not means salmon.

After living here for over twenty years, and having developed a keen interest in “all things salmon”, I now know that there are always fish in Rocky Brook. I see them. I understand the salmon life-cycle, the changes from egg to alevin to fry to smolt to ocean-living adult. I know where to look (under an overhanging tree by the deeper pools between the cascading rapids), and how to look (best at night with a good flashlight). But this wasn’t always the case.

When I first moved here, I was pretty much like most visitors of today. I am fascinated by the spectacle of great numbers of spawning adults, or even a single lonely female stirring up the gravel with no male in sight. Like most people, I forgot about them once the last part of their spent carcass is carried off somewhere by some hungry scavenger. Out of sight, out of mind, for another year.

My first awareness of their year-round presence was completely intellectual. Reading about their lives, I realized that there were developing embryos and tiny alevins (a new word for me at the time) living out-of-sight for months in the spaces between the gravel. I learned that Rocky Brook, being a coho river, had fish that spent a whole year in it before venturing out to the ocean to get really big. I read that virtually every river had fish that didn’t even go out to the ocean, they lived their whole lives right here, right under my nose. I learned that not all fish that I might encounter were not salmon or salmon “relatives” (trout).

Armed with this knowledge, I began to look. At first I didn’t see much, mostly a darting fry made visible by the location of the sun. The real breakthrough came when I got my first point-and-shoot underwater camera (a Christmas gift from my friend Stephanie). I mounted it on a tripod, turned it on, submerged it to about gravel level, and left it running for two or three minutes. I was astonished by what I saw.

The first time I did this was during a run of spawning pinks and chums. I had no control of focus or light settings or ability to follow the action. It was pretty much hit-or-miss. Yet those first pictures opened up a whole new world to me, they were nothing short of astonishing in their clarity, quality, and capturing of underwater action. This little point-and-shoot camera did it all automatically, even underwater. It even recorded the rushing underwater sounds.

This, one of my earliest underwater photos, was a real surprise since it shows both spawning adults and young fry sharing a deep hole just below an alder tree. I think the little fish are rainbow trout, the adults pinks. The photo was taken in September, 2015.

The real revelation came when I took the camera up to the waterfall. It is 229 ft. high, and like most waterfalls, has a deep pool carved out at its base. The pool is a popular swimming destination during the summer (about 10 ft. deep). During the rest of the year it is too cold for even wading.

I attached my camera to a tripod, pressed shoot, and lowered it into the water. To my surprise, I saw that there were all kinds of fish there, most in the fry range (four inches) but a few almost a ft. long. And the camera revealed that these fish tended to congregate right where the water over the falls meets the pool, the dynamic edge, where things to eat drop from above.

Thus I began to both film under Rocky Brook throughout the year, as well as sit down along its banks and just watch. The just watching approach is one taken by fishermen. They may not see anything, but experience tells them that there has to be something down there (hopefully something big). I came to see not really big fish, but lots of little what are referred to as “fry” (around 2 inches long) and a few somewhat larger “fingerlings” (4 inches). And every now and again, something “big” would pass my field of vision (8 to 12 inches), and really make me feel good. It must be an ingrained response we human animals have, seeing something “meal-size” eliciting more interest.

This photo taken in the pool below Rocky Brook Falls illustrates fry congregating near the dynamic edge where water over the falls meets the calmer deep pool. They are most likely rainbow trout, steelhead and/or coho salmon. Almost all of the coho, who were hatched about eight months ago, will spend the winter in Rocky Brook and head out to the ocean the following year as one-year-olds. Rainbow trout will be residents except for those that head out to sea; these are called steelhead.

I am still working on their identification. To the untrained and inexperienced eye, little salmon and trout tend to look alike. Their distinguishing characteristics are subtle, they don’t “stand” still. and prefer staying hidden, only to dart out when food appears, and then return to the shadows. Based on past counts and observations, I know what to expect. They are most likely coho, steelhead or rainbow trout fry and fingerlings.

My main guide in this effort is a little 32 page booklet called “Field Identification of Coastal Juvenile Salmonids by W. R. Pollard, G. F. Hartman, C. Groot, and Phil Edgell. It can be ordered from Harbour Publishing, PO Box 219, Madeira Park, BC, Canada V0N 2H0. The current list price is $14.95.

According to this guide, the edges of dorsal and anal fins of coho fry are white with a black stripe below. Steelhead and rainbow trout are similar, but the white on their dorsal and anal fins is mostly on the tip area. The booklet states that to be really sure of your identification, one needs to actually capture the little fish and keep them alive in stream water as you observe patterns and take measurements. I am still working on getting better at this (these little, wary fish are not that easy to catch).

This photo was taken in the “swimming hole” right below Rocky Brook Falls. The camera focused on the fingerling coho swimming about with the rest of the frame out of focus. The white line in the background indicates the edge where the water from the falls meets the pool at its base.

There are times when, if I sit down and wait, stare at an area, and the lighting is just right, I have even seen sculpins. I know they should be there. They look like dark shadows on the bottom, motionless, nearly impossible to distinguish from the surrounding rocks, but every now and then moving quickly to reveal their presence, just for a moment. I hope to learn more about these little bottom dwelling fish which, in some streams, can be more abundant than salmon or trout.

So, when people ask me if there are any fish in Rocky Brook, I confidently tell them that yes there are. I add that they will most likely not be able to see them because they are small fry (which, growing up in Minnesota, we would call “minnows”).

And, when there are bigger fish in the fall that I have seen (or Washington Dept. of Fish and Wildlife biologists doing weekly fish surveys have observed), I post this fact on a sign I have placed by the bridge. I want people to appreciate that Rocky Brook is alive and doing its part to keep salmon populations viable.

Maybe someday the technology will become available and affordable such that I can have an underwater camera in Rocky Brook and people will be able to see fish on their phone screens in real time. I’m pretty sure this will one day be the case, the way various technologies seem to be advancing.

I still recommend the old fashioned way though; sitting quietly by the streambank, waiting and watching. One sees more than just fish in this way.

Dennis Lloyd Kuklok
Rocky Brook, February 1, 2022

Next Blog
Emergence
Look for it about April 1 (No Fooling).

2 Comments

  1. Doug Hatfield says:

    Hi Dennis, Your images from Rocky Brook, both verbal and visual, are a treat for the eyes, mind and soul. Do you see any indication of fresh water mussels in R/B ? As I’m learning, they are another fascinating component to a healthy ecosystem.

    When we see a yellow bloom from the Skunk Cabbage, can we kiss the Winter of 2021 / 2022 goodbye…? With much appreciation, Doug

    Like

    1. Dear Doug.

      I have not seen any evidence of fresh water mussels in Rocky Brook. To be honest, I didn’t know there was such a thing as a fresh water mussel, though it shouldn’t surprise me. We continue to learn that life comes in forms and occurs in places we just never expected or imagined. I like to think that Rocky Brook is a “healthy ecosystem”, but it has been logged and impacted by humans (including me) for over 150 years at least. Where and how should I look for these mussels?

      Also, no skunk cabbage that I am aware of here around Rocky Brook and the Dosewallips. My guess would be that it is just too well drained to support this bog loving plant. I am always impressed when I see one though, such surprising beauty and vigor.

      My measure of spring is when the Indian Plums flower and leaf out such that I can no longer see the Dosewallips from where I live at Rocky Brook. Its like a green veil that descends all around me, a time to focus on things nearby, such as my garden.

      I would suspect that you have a garden.

      Dennis

      Like

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