Skagit River Dams [Archive] - Fly Fishing Forum

: Skagit River Dams

Scott K
09-29-2002, 11:44 PM
Myself being Canadian, unfortunately I have never fished below the border yet, although I aspire to one day that's for sure.

I have been reading Trey Coombs Steelhead Fly fishing, again, and I am at the Skagit chapter which I am reading. In this chapter it notes that where the dams are, used to be a fairly fast water canyon where he suggests historically only a few Summer Steelhead may have gotten through it.

My question is, how right is he? Were there historically Summer Steelhead that might have made it through to Canadian waters?

I don't know if any of you people south of the border know, but above the border above the Ross Lake Dam in what is the Upper Skagit River in Canada, we have a semi pristine beautiful rainbow trout fishery which is world renowned primarily for being so close (2 hr drive) to Vancouver. These rainbows aren't the largest, or the most abundant to some more interior of BC streams though. They are generally between 12 to 16 inches on average, and they take all the noted hatches on this river.

Having fished this River above the Ross Lake dam for resident rainbows once, I can say that it is a very gorgeous river. I remember fishing it Mid July in the finishing stages of the freshet. The stream is fairly clear to a jade green tint, and has without a doubt in my mind, some of the most abundant and perfect spawning grounds you can find in the world. The Rainbow fry were all over the place as I waded into the next run, it was amazing to see. I am curious to see, if Summer Steelhead could make it through what was a vicious canyon, if these rainbows we fish for are Summer Steelhead descendants, or carry the genetics from what were their ancestors. In the event that there was a canyon as described, it would probably be Summer Steelhead and Chinook who would be the most likely candidates to make it through I would figure considering their strong abilities to migrate.

Thanks for reading and any replies/info is appreciated.


PS - It is sad to see such a beautiful River dammed

09-30-2002, 11:49 PM

I would be very surprised if any anadromous fish made it through the cauldron Trey speaks about. The first dam is actually situated about this very steep and what would have been a very dangerous set of step-falls that is several miles long. It would easily be Class VI+ water. This section includes boulders the size of busses and cars throughout, and is in a rather narrow canyon as well.

The Newhalem Dam actually shuts to water off from this section of the river bed and sends the flow through the flumes to the Nehalem Powerhouse below. This section can be seen from several pull-outs along Highway 20 (the NOrth Cascade Highway). The hydraulics and curent speed would have been tremendous in this section of river. It is some 80 river miles from the mouth at Skagit Bay to this part of the river.

There is beautiful spawning areas below this though. And the best spawning area is closed to fishing after February 28th until June 1st each year.

The dams on the Baker River near the town of Concrete are the ones that have played havoc with the anadromous fish on the Skagit. Summer runs are extinct on it since the2 dams have been build on it and most of the Baker River is now under the water of the 2 dams. The to add insult to injury, the power company dredged the Baker from below the lower Dam (Baker Dam) and cut a ditch straight into the Skagit while bypassing and drying out approximately 2 miles worth of prime spawning areas that used to be the Baker between the old bridge and where it entered the Skagit. Most folks don't even know this 2 miles existed because there have been several gravel operations that worked it since it was dried out. Doesn't even look like an old river bed anymore. What a shame.

Now the power company is talking about 'restoring a spawning channel' of about 1/2 mile to improve fish spawning success. Too bad FERC doesn't require them to restore the whole 2 miles.

10-01-2002, 12:07 AM
Drove past the Baker River today (over the Highway #20 bridge), Puget Sound Energy had the flow shut down to a trickle.

I tend to believe flytyer has the right info on this end of the Skagit near Newhalem. Real tight canyon/chute.

I would love to fish your end of this river after reading many posts on the BC Adventure BB and visiting a member's web site. Sounds nice. Maybe someday soon.


Scott K
10-01-2002, 12:26 AM
Thanks for the replies fellas.

I appreciate the info, and I appreciate your hospitality considering my lack of knowledge in your area on the Skagit River.

In this chapter it also talks about Jerry Wintles 48 inch Steelhead which was around 40 pounds or so. It also mentions many other reported cases of very large Skagit Steelhead to help substantiate the possibility of Jerry Wintle catching such a large Steelhead out of the Skagit (I'm trying not to say that there are a lot of these Steelhead for the sake of truthfulness, don't everyone go here all of a sudden because I'm guessing the chances of getting one are very slim)

I am curious as to why a race of Steelhead, especially (Chrome) Spring runs, would need to develop a life history that makes them this large. Could anyone speculate as to why? I mean where else other than in some up north rivers and some other special rivers around here, would you find Steelhead with a life history that doesn't bring them to their spawning reds until they are 7 and 8 years old. I realize it is a life history adapation on the part of Steelhead to have many different age classes returning to comprise each years run, but 7 and 8 year old Steelhead that weigh 30+ pounds?

From my understanding, Steelhead in optimal migration conditions are noted for being able to scale waterfalls of 15 feet and possibly a few feet more, or so I've heard. We have a "creek" up here that seems to not waste time in it's plunge towards the mouth. It has cascading white water, severely fast pocket water, a set of high falls, and the only fish that seem to be able to make it through are Summer Steelhead. Not even Chinook utilize this creek, and you would think the would considering no other salmonid species do (other than Bull Trout above the Falls which have probably been there since whatever natural disaster it was that made this "creek" the way it was). Noting that and considering Chinook are the "next best" migrators to that of STeelhead, but you don't find Chinook in this watershed, says a lot about the migration ability of Steelhead and that it is that much far above and beyond that of the next best migrator being the Chinook Salmon, at least in theory I figure.

I think there must be a relationship between the caudal penduncle and the jumping ability of fish. Notice how Steelhead have the thickest penduncle, Chinook the next thickest, Coho the next? Maybe there is a relationship there? Size of Tail too most likely.


Scott K
10-01-2002, 12:33 AM
Please note, "migrating ability," is a connotation in my part in my above thread. There is the ability to migrate long distnaces which Sockeye and Chinook are well noted for and famous for. And then there is the ability to challenge fast/white water and perservere through much of it, which is my connotation in the above mentioned post.

Also, I was reading a paper that attempted to differentiate Summer and Winter Steelhead as juveniles by looking at things like # Gill rakers, # of vertebrae, anal fin size/rays, and other physical appearance indicators. From what I recall, it notes that as juveniles it is virtually impossible to tell. The only way they did note a difference in Summer runs versus Winter runs was the Summer run juveniles seemed to store much more body fat reserves to that of winter runs which is probably indicative of obviously there freshwater residence as adults later on, and who knows, maybe they are very prolific migrators in the ocean as well?

10-01-2002, 12:40 AM

Don't you just love the way Puget Sound Energy helps take care of the fish and how conservation minded they are? Just like they so mindfully virtually shut the flow in the Baker off last December so that the threatened Chinook eggs could be exposed to freezing temperatures in the middle Skagit. Maybe the governor should give them some special treatment because of their careful stuartship of the river and its anadromous fish.

10-01-2002, 02:28 AM

Oh I'm certain that if and when Puget Sound Energy comes asking for favor the governor (whatever party affiliation) and the legislature will give to their cause. Always been this way. Power generation and timber = progress and jobs and tax revenue.

Sure have a lot more to say about these dams but I won't bother. Needless to say I wish the ones on the Baker River were gone. The ones on the Skagit, I hedge big time as I own a farm which they protect from the next "pineapple express". The canyon/chute below Newhalem eases my conscience a bit, believing it is insurmountable to steelhead migration so why not keep the dam? No happy answer for me, I still feel the wild river spirit in me turning on this one.

ws -

Drew Looseleaf Scarecrow

10-01-2002, 08:29 PM

Unfortunately, I'm as certain as you that our governor and legislators, regardless of political party, will give PSE most anything it asks for. I wish it was different though.

The Skagit dams don't bother me very much because of where they are located, above the probable limit of anadromous fish passage. And Seattle City Light is a much better stuart of the river's fish. Maybe it is the difference between a municipal owned electric utility that must answer to the people and a private one that only answers to its CEO and board of directors.

10-01-2002, 09:57 PM
Thought you might enjoy the following - they are talking about the reach of Skagit from City of Seattle Camp (Newhalm) upstream to Ruby Creek (major lower Ross Lake Trib).

"The banks in many places are abrupt precipies. Through this region the Skagit boils and foams for the greater part of the distance... While no single fall or rapid observed would form an insurmountable barrier to the upward migration of salmon, yet the continued series of low falls and rapids seem to have proved effective in stopping the run of salmon through this part of river... Salmon have been seen about one mile above the City of Seattle Camp. Rainbow trout and Dolly Varden are very abundant in this part of the river and afford excellent fishing." (Smith and Anderson, 1921 - U of W fisheries biologist conducting stream surveys).

It has been suggested that there were such velocity barriers in the canyon that access to the upper portion of the water shed was limited so that salmon population could not be maintained. If during rare events such as low flows from an exceptional fall drought or prolong winter freeze summer steelhead and char may have rarely gained access to the upper basin and their descendants would support theresident populations of rainbows and char found there today. It is this thinking that leads to the idea that summer steelhead were the pioneering source of the rainbows.

The large spawning substrate found in the upper Skagit and Sauk between Darrington and the Whitechuck is the likely process that selects for large winter steelhead. It takes an exceptional fish to move the large stones. I have seen several fish that would easily be in the 30s including an extraordinary fish that may have been more than 4 feet long (similar to the Wintle fish). These fish are likely selected by the same processes that were responsible for the exeption size of the summer chinook spawning in the upper Skagit. In the 1970s it wasn't uncommon to look off the Marblemount brdige this time of year and see dozens of spawning chinook including several inthe 50 and 60# range. Occasionally even larger fish would be seen. Historically chinook of more than 80#s have been reportly been caught.

Tight lines

Scott K
10-01-2002, 10:10 PM
How do we know that the River above the Canyon may or may not have housed a Super race of genetically superior Steelhead similar to the very Large Atlantic Salmon found in Norway which are apparently known for ascending rivers with very steep gradients? Or another similar race of Steelhead? It could have house a really long powerful (and possibly very large) Steelhead race which is adept at jumping falls, and challenging fast water chutes, and/or a long, large, and powerful Chinook Salmon, who only with it's size and extended stay in the ocean, was able to surmount the supposed barriers found in this canyon?

I don't know, I can only hypothezie, and part of me hopes that maybe at one time where were Steelhead who could have gotten through the gauntlet. Thanks for the info Smalma. I guess I can only wonder.

We will probaby never find out.

10-01-2002, 10:44 PM

Having lived in the Skagit Valley for a very long time and in Marblemount for the past 5 years, the Skagit River has long been a passion of mine. I am very much indebted to you for this info - Thanks!

Scott K,

Maybe them super steelies could fly ;) .


Scott K
10-01-2002, 11:08 PM
The phrase you said to me, brought up something in my mind that is probably fairly obvious, but maybe something we take for granted in knowing. Maybe that's not what was meant by you, but here goes:

The future of the Wild Native Genetically unique Steelhead races that have survived through the dams, pollution, water diversion, logging, habitat damage, and other manmade and human impacts is in our hands. They are something special which can never be found for another 1000 years or more of evolution. It's up to us to protect them for they are a true symbol of what each river is.

They really could fly if we wanted them to. If there's a will to make them fly, there's a way. They certainly fly through my thoughts every day. How about you?

10-01-2002, 11:16 PM

I had read the report from which you quoted 2 years ago but I don't have a copy of it and so posted about the Skagit above Newhalem in a more generic manner than you di with the quote. Thanks for having the report handy and quating from it.

I never thought about the large spawning substrate being responsible for the large fish in the Skagit and Sauk; however, it makes perfect sense. I have hooked 2 monsters in the mid and late 90's. One in the Skagit between Concrete and Rockport, and one in the Sauk between the mouth and the 'government bridge'. Didn't land either of them. The hood pulled free of the Sauk fish after 45 minutes, man were my arms and wrists sore afterward. And the one on the Skagit simply broke me off after 5 minutes because I put too much pressure on it to keep it from going downstream around the bend.

Might the larger spawning substrate also be reponsible for the reather large summer and winter fish in the Cascade? Or is it hte result of the fish having to move through the Cascade's canyon cascades?

Thanks for the info on the spawning sbstrate.

10-01-2002, 11:41 PM
Scott -
While it would be nice to think such "super" fish existed the fact is that is unlikely.

If summer steelhead had access to the river above the "gorge" they would have dozens of miles of habitat and the resulting run size would have numbered in the 1000s. Deer Creek on the Stillaguamish which is a much smaller basin historically supported no more than a couple thousand adults. By the 1920 the Deer Creek fish were supporting an active fishery. If summer fish were headed to the upper Skagit they would have likely been delayed in the Gorge and someone would have likely noticed such a number of large fish. At the time of the Smith and Anderson report miners had been poking around the upper basin for decades, folks lived along the river at and above Newhalem (a Mr. G. G. Davis lived about 6 miles upstream of Newhalem) and the US Forest service maintained a cabin even further upstream that was occupied occasionally. The biologist interviewed these folks and others and no one reported seeing or even hearing of such fish. Elsewhere in their report Smith and Anderson reproted other "hearsay" evidence.

More to the point the wild Skagit steelhead resource is extraordinary enough. I have seen a number of fish over the years that would have weighted well into the 30s and one exception fish that was on par with the "Wintle" fish (those fish were certainly 7 or more years old). In the Sauk winter steelhead penetrate the basin nearly 120 miles from salt water and spawn at elevations approaching 3,000 feet. It is common to see winter steelhead spawning from March through July. I have personally caught wild winter steelhead from the system every month of the year - unspawned adults November through July and kelts from late April through October. While fishing cutts in the lower river I have caught several perfect little "half pounder" steelhead - fish that are 15/16 inches long whose scales indicate that they smolted at age 2 and are returning after just one summer of rearing in marine waters (returning at the end of their 3 year). Several of the tribs. have neat little wild summer steelhead whose parents were likely the resident rainbows living upstream of migration barriers. The habitat below those falls is used by winter fish and the parr below the falls are genetically similar to the winter fish.

The Skagit coho and char maybe as extraordinary as the steelhead.

Tight lines

Scott K
10-02-2002, 12:01 AM
Damn, I could only hope! Smalma, couldn't you at least lie to me?

Excellent info and history by the way. Much appreciated on this topic.


10-02-2002, 12:13 AM
Scott -
Having fished for more than 50 years I have learned confine my lies to my fishing reports!

Seriously, enjoyed sharing what little I have managed learn over the years.

Tight lines

Todd Ripley
10-02-2002, 01:03 AM

Thanks for the great info...and I'd definitely have to agree with you about the exceptional characteristics of the Skagit basin char.

As you know, I fish a lot of those tiny tribs in the summer, and it is indeed a real kick to see fifteen to twenty pound wild winter runs spawning in July in creeks you could damn near step over without getting wet. It's also quite a sight to see gigantic chinook in those little tributaries, too, and the hordes of big dollies darting amongst them. I sure remember a lot more of those kings being around many years ago...but I've been noticing more and more each year the last few summers.

Here's to hoping that a trend like that is one that maintains!

Fish on...


10-02-2002, 01:05 AM
Dreams, Scott, they can fly in our dreams.

Not a geologist, or a biologist, or a fishery culturist (ya teaching hatchery fish some culture?) but most anything is possible given time. Maybe there was a time when steelhead ranged further into the headwaters of the Skagit. Upthrusting plates and glacial changes, etc. forming a new land. I see no reason to limit ones look into the past - the hand of nature glides to a rhythm of her own. I've seen many theories on the Earth's formation come and go in my 52 years and I am sure there will be more changes/corrections to come. And we can always dream...

ws - the dreamer!

10-02-2002, 08:37 AM
Todd -
With the restricted ocean fisheries for chinook, especially off Vancouver Island the last several years we should be seeing more older (larger) chinook returning to the spawning grounds. As I recall the 5 year old fish returning this year are the first in decades that didn't experience heavy expliotation rates at some point during their ocean feeding. Catching those fish as immature fish (they begin entering the fisheries as fast growing 2 year olds or 3 year olds) in off-shore troll and sport fisheries seriously reduces the average age of the population.

Every year I become more impressed with our native char (Dolly Varden when the fly rod is in hand). As more is learned about their varied life histories and behaviors it becomes clearer that they are the most complex of our salmonids here in the Puget Sound Rivers. They are able to use nearly all of the Skagit basin at some point in their diverse life histories. Only the O. Mykiss (steehead/rainbow) complex come close to using as diverse habitats.

Tight lines

10-03-2002, 08:59 AM
So much for all of us to learn. Such a wonderful thread.