It's tough to look a trout in the eyes. First, there's the challenge of finding a live wild one. Then there's getting it to hold still. And even if I could overcome the awkward socket placement—one unblinking fish eye per flat side of head—there's still the guilt factor. I really haven't done enough for wild trout, and here it is, the tail end of February, which is official Steelhead Month. So I salute the fish advocates who slog around in local creeks to improve salmonid habitat and who, just a few weeks ago, knocked themselves out on behalf of these speechless swimmers. Fish-crazy volunteers for Trout Unlimited threw a shindig for wild steelhead in Healdsburg, and some 3,000 people showed up to celebrate. Now that's a party. This gathering raised needed money to restore Healdsburg's Foss Creek, where desire for the fish to return prompted a town proclamation honoring wild steelhead.
While the volunteers who worked the festival weren't fishing for compliments, they were understandably fried when the Santa Rosa Press Democrat erroneously reported that their Feb. 7 event drew only a few hundred people in an article that focused on fish hatcheries. "They missed the guiding adjective," says Trout Unlimited activist Brian Hines. "It was a wild steelhead festival. Hatcheries are used for mitigation, but are no substitution for a healthy watershed. Our big plan is to restore the tributaries and bring back the wild fish."
Many among those thousands of party guests routinely volunteer in Sonoma, Marin and Napa county waterways doing the work to bring back the cool pools, riffles and water quality in which steelhead once thrived. Just 30 years ago, the Russian River hosted the third largest steelhead migration in California. Trout Unlimited plans to restore all 100 tributaries of the Russian River within a generation. This will include removing migration barriers and eliminating wastewater discharges that harm threatened steelhead and endangered coho and Chinook salmon.
The group plans to recreate conditions that existed in 1968, when the waters held about 50,000 wild steelhead (and little transistor radios along the beaches blared Steppenwolf's "Born to Be Wild"). It's an ambitious project, but they have a track record for success. Back in the 1980s, Trout Unlimited volunteers worked for a decade to restore Marin's Lagunitas Creek, which has had over 500 wild coho in recent years. In Napa County, volunteers are presently looking to restore Ritchey Creek in Bothe Park, near Calistoga.
The far-flung chapters of Trout Unlimited are in fact plotting the return of the entire Pacific salmon fisheries within 30 years. "The benefits of a restored watershed are not just for the fish," Hines explains. "The communities get sustainable benefits in the form of tourism, and jobs in sport and commercial fisheries. If we get the habitat back in shape, we can bring back the salmon." Even those not fond of fish may rejoice that a fully restored steelhead trout fishery in Napa could generate close to $40 million in revenues, according to the Napa Resource Conservation District.
And for no economic reason, the presence of wild fish can make us happier. For a few years, I've lived on an urban tributary of the Napa River and seen not one finned creature. My eight-year-old and I have fished out only cans, bottles, a blue plastic binder and a piece of a Formica countertop. I make him wear shoes in this sad creek.
But the first time we visited the Napa River Ecological Reserve, an oasis of wild riparian habitat, it was a very different experience. After we hiked under the shade of big trees on a warm day, we waded barefoot into the clear water and, right on cue, a school of fry swam over and brushed against our ankles. We laughed, and I realized that even with minimal contact, trout have done more to restore my spirit than I have done to restore their habitat. I should join Trout Unlimited. Then my creek might get some fish and I could look any trout in the eyes and say, "Hey, I'm helping us both!"