Two fish ladders at the spillway weren’t built properly, and so they’re useless for giving fish passage to the waters above the dam.
“It’s just really, really violent high hydraulics, and they can’t make it up it — under any conditions,” Thomas said.
There is a legendary story of a problem fish, a hybrid of a bull trout and a non-native brook trout, that made it up the fish ladder four times. In one amazing stretch of time, the fish spent 12 days hanging out in the spillway. No other fish had been detected making it up the fish ladder before or since.
“She was very athletic,” Thomas said.
Thomas has fished, waded and swam in these waters help move these bull trout to better habitat.
“With global warming happening, it’s important that we allow the fish to get to this cold water refugia or they’ll disappear,” he said.
Funding for a better fish ladder is in the works. There’s a possibility to tie it to a regional water plan that’s working to improve future water access for fish, agriculture, and cities.
But that’s a long ways off.
So, for now, federal and state fish biologists move them by hand. For the past few years, their main tools have been rods and reels.
This year they’re upping their game.
Pat Monk, a fish biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, started pumping air into a small boat.
“It’s called a cataraft,” Monk said.
Picture an inflatable raft with oars. Monk stood on the front of the raft with a tangle net, as other biologists paddled him around the pool at the base of the dam. Every so often he’d pull the net up with a fish trapped inside.
“They get their get teeth tangled up,” Thomas said. “And then they get all freaked out, and they start to roll around and get tangled up.”
It’s still slow going, but all agree: It’s much more efficient than fly rods.
“Holy smokes, we hit the mother lode,” said John Easterbrooks, regional fish program manager for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, after they wrangled four fish into the net.
Several hours and eight fish later, the biologists get to work. They first drug each fish with an anesthetic. Then they take DNA samples to make sure they’re moving the right fish — and not some from another population in the basin. This year they get rapid DNA results 12 hours later.
The biologists measure the length of each fish, surgically implant a pit tag the size of a grain of rice, and inspect each fish for any identifying marks that might mean they’re one of the hybrid fish.
This year, the group moved 19 fish above the dam, a couple more than the previous year.
“This is just a stopgap measure. The fish need to be able to move on own. On their own timing,” Monk said.
It’s a lot of effort for a few fish — but it’s an effort they say is well worth it. They said they’ve made a big difference in the number of fish making it to cooler waters beyond the dam.
“If we had passage we would be in good shape,” Thomas said.